Monday, 30 May 2011

West Virginia and The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb (1953)

Harry Powell, the widow-killing antagonist of Davis Grubb's West Virginia-set Night of the Hunter, was based on the real-life serial-killer Harry F. Powers who operated from his small home, Quiet Dell, near a West Virginia hamlet where he lived with his wife Luella, posing as a "wealthy widower" in lonely-hearts columns. In 1931 it would become known in the media as the "murder farm" when the bodies of Asta Eicher, 50, a Chicago widow and her three children (Greta, 14; Harry, 12, and Anabel, 9) were unearthed in the grounds of Power's garden and garage during the investigation into their disappearance. Eicher, who struggled to raise her three children, had responded to an "American Friendship" ad which read "Wealthy widower worth $150,000. Has income from $400 to $2,000 a month." After the family went missing a series of love letters led the police to Powers home where the bodies of the mother and children had been buried in shallow graves. The body of another woman was discovered in the garage, Dorothy Lemke, a 50 year old divorcée from Northboro, Mass who had gone missing around the same time. Although Powers only ever confessed to the five murders, there was a strong suspicion that he killed before, and a search of his home yielded a trunk-load of correspondence from more than 100 love-starved widows and spinsters from all over the country suggesting that he had been operating as a love racketeer for more than a decade. In 1932 Powers was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. There are numerous similarities with Harry Powell of Night of the Hunter, most obviously his name, that he operates in West Virginia, and that he preys on lonely widows, but Davis Grubb's protanist is not solely motivated by money. Instead he is compelled by what he believes to be the word of God to take the lives of sinners, specifically lustful widows (the money is further motivation). In this aspect the character is firmly routed in the Southern Gothic tradition in its use of irony to examine the character of the rural South. Powell - who has love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands - claims to be an agent of love but is in fact the complete opposite.

The book also includes some wonderful descriptions of the Ohio Valley, where the majority of the book takes place:

"In the Ohio Valley it is the river that gives and takes the seasons. It is as if that mighty stream were the vast, alluvial artery of the land itself so that when the towns grow weary of snows and harsh fogs the great heart pumps green spring blood down the valley and the banks are warmed and nourished by it and soon the whole environing earth blossoms despite itself and the air comes alive and lambs caper and bleat upon the hillside paths. And so now it was the prime of spring in the bottomlands. Soon the redbone hound would kelt in the creek hollows on nights when the moon was a curl of golden hair against the shoulder of the Ohio hills. Soon the shantyboat people would join their fiddle and mouth-harp racket to the chorus of green frogs down under the mists in the moonlit willows."

I took great relish in reading this book. Despite its pulpy subject matter it's very well written, it moves at a lightning pace, with some truly nail-biting sequences in which the serial-killer pursues the children in an unrelenting almost Terminator-like manner down the Ohio River, and the character of Harry Powell is a wonderfully horrific creation. I re-watched the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed Robert Mitchum film adaptation after finishing the book (I've not seen it in ten years). It still holds up as a great, truely unique film in its appliance of an expressionist style to a rural setting, and although the book doesn't have the surrealism of Charles Laughton's vision it's a shame that it has been overshadowed by the growing reputation of the film over the years. Most of the films dialouge is lifted straight from the page, and it's to Grubb's credit that he created such a believable monster.

Next: Virginia

Monday, 23 May 2011

Week 12: State - West Virginia

West Virginia, originally part of the state of Virginia, became in 1863 the only state in the Union to secede from a Confederate state during the American Civil War, following sharp division over the issue of secession from the Union (its original Native American name of Kanawha was subsequently changed to West Virginia). Following its founding it became known as The Mountain State for being the only state to lie entirely with the Appalachia Mountain range (also explaining its motto - Montani Semper Liberi, "Mountaineers are always free."), a factor which has profoundly affected its economy (West Virginia is second only to Wyoming in coal-production in the United States) and the lifestyles of its residents. John Denver's song "Take Me Home, Country Roads" describes the experience of driving through the West Virginian countryside, and many locals refer to their home state as Almost Heaven, in reference to the opening line of the song. West Virginia is the least populous south-eastern state, and only 1.1% of the state's residents are foreign-born (the lowest in the country). The largest city and state capital is Charleston.

Films set in West Virginia include The Mothman Prophecies as well as the 1975 non-fiction book which formed the basis for the film (both focusing on Point Pleasant in Mason County), Wrong Turn (set in the forests of West Virginia), and the 1955 Robert Mitchum thriller The Night of the Hunter, which just so happens to also be the book I've selected for this state.

After struggling through Anne Tyler in Maryland I knew I had to pick something I would enjoy this time, and I know I can't go wrong with this one. Although the film, now considered a classic, was a critical and box office failure on its initial release, the book by Davis Grubb, first published in 1953, was a bestseller and National Book Award finalist, and is now well regarded as a classic of the Southern Gothic genre.

Review to follow this week...

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Week 11: State - Maryland (and Washington D.C.)

Maryland, the first state south of the Mason-Dixon line on this trip, was in 1790 chosen as the location of the nations new capital when George Washington, the first President of the United States, selected land to be ceded to the District of Columbia for the creation of the Federal Capital, renamed Washington, D.C. the following year in his honour. Although the District is not part of any U.S. state and is instead directly overseen by the federal government, it currently sits solely on land ceded by Maryland as the land also provided by Virginia was retro-ceded back to the state in 1846. Located within the district are The White House, the centres of all three branches of the U.S. federal government, the J. Edgar Hoover Building (headquarters of the FBI), many national museums and war memorials, the Lincoln Memorial and Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the historic Ford's Theatre (site of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln), the Washington Monument, and the the National Archives which houses the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Washington, D.C. also hosts 174 foreign embassies as well as the headquarters of the World Bank.

Outside of the cities and suburbs surrounding Washington, DC, the majority of the population of Maryland is located in and around Maryland's most populous city, Baltimore, the largest independent city in the United States (in not being part of any county). Baltimore is also the largest U.S. seaport in the Mid-Atlantic and was once the second leading port of entry for immigrants to the United States. During the War of 1812, the British military attempted to capture the port, which was protected by Fort McHenry, and it was during this bombardment that Francis Scott Key, a Maryland lawyer aboard a British ship where he had been negotiating for the release of an American prisoner, witnessed the bombardment and later wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner", a poem recounting the attack, which was later set to music and became the official National Anthem of the United States in 1931. The state as a whole has a booming economy led by the computer industry and scores of federal government jobs in and around the Washington area. As a result Maryland households are currently the wealthiest in the country, with a 2009 median household income of $69,272 (ahead of New Jersey and Connecticut), and the poverty rate is the lowest in the country. Maryland is known alternately as Little America, due to the diverse variety of its topography (despite the absence of any natural lakes), The Old Line State, or The Free State. The capital is Annapolis.

Notable films set in and around Washington, D.C. include, aside from all the numerous depictions of historical and fictional U.S. Presidents, All the President's Men (based on the Woodward and Bernstein reporting of the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post), The Exorcist (set in Georgetown), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Minority Report, as well as the T.V. Shows The West Wing, and The X-Files. In rural Maryland The Blair Witch Project is set in and around the town of Burkittsville, whilst films set in Baltimore include 12 Monkeys and The Accidental Tourist. Baltimore native Barry Levinson has set a series of films in Baltimore (Diner, Tin Men, Avalon and Liberty Heights), as has fellow resident John Waters who parodies the city extensively in his films (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray). The acclaimed crime dramas Homicide: Life On the Street and The Wire are also both set in Baltimore. Contemporary writers based in Baltimore include Anne Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist, and Tom Clancy (the film adaptation of his novel The Sum of All Fears features the destruction of Baltimore by a nuclear bomb). For my choice of novel at first I was tempted to cheat and go with The Exorcist, which is set in Georgetown in Washington, but having felt that I've read too many books lately which have been turned into films I've already seen I've decided to go with one by Anne Tyler.

A Patchwork Planet was first published in 1998 and like many of Anne Tyler's novels is set in Baltimore. I've read the book over the last week and as I've fallen behind schedule I won't be posting a separate review. It's not the kind of book I would normally read and I found her writing a little too whimsical for my tastes, though I understand this is part of the appeal to her fan base and A Patchwork Planet has been largely praised elsewhere. It's also the first book on this trip where I've felt the setting hasn't played a large role as a character in the story. The plot focuses on a divorced 30-year-old former juvenile from Baltimore who has proved to be a disappointment to his affluent family from Guilford by not amounting to anything more than his dead-end career as a handyman for the elderly. Guilford is a distinctive residential neighbourhood in the northern part of Baltimore comprising of 680 family dwellings ranging from modest homes to stately mansions, many with swimming pools, extensive landscaping and old-fashioned streetlights. There are also a number of scenes set in Penn Station, the main train station in Baltimore (built 1911) and the eighth busiest rail station in the United States.

Next: West Virginia

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Delaware and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996)

Wilmington, the largest city in the state of Delaware, and the setting for Chuck Palahniuk's 1996 novel Fight Club, has a longstanding reputation as an attractive hub to businesses and corporations due to its efficient judicial system and pro-business finance laws, including laws protecting Delaware chartered corporations from hostile takeovers and The Financial Center Development Act of 1981 which removed the cap on interest rates that banks may legally charge customers. As a result Wilmington has become a national financial center for the credit card industry. Many major credit card issuers, including Bank of America, Chase Card Services, and Barclays Bank of Delaware are headquartered in Wilmington, as are the American operations of the United Kingdom's HSBC. All this goes some way to explaining why Chuck Palahniuk had Wilmington in mind when he wrote Fight Club, with its anti-consumer culture themes and scenes of organised "mischief" directed against large corporations. Although the book never explicitly states where it is set, there are clues peppered throughout, though much more prominently so in the 1999 David Fincher film adaptation (the narrator's business card includes the suburban Wilmington zip code 19808 and the Delaware area code 302, his apartment building Pierson Towers has as its motto "A Place to Be Somebody" - the city motto for Wilmington, Delaware state flags, Delaware license plates, and the other cities mentioned as starting up new fight clubs include New Castle, Delaware City, and Penns Grove, NJ, which are all very close to Wilmington).

I enjoyed Fight Club as a fast-paced, blackly-comic entertaining read. The film, which I have seen on numerous ocassions, is incredibly faithful to the source material (whole sections of dialogue are lifted from the page), albeit more streamlined and linear, and at times the book even reads like a treatment for the film, with its concise prose effectively satirising the bite-size slogans of large corporations. Despite all this though I don't feel the book is as significant as the film which, released in 1999, came at a point when independent cinema in American had grown stagnant with lazy Tarantino imitations and helped, along with a number of other independent films released the same year (most notably Being John Malkovich), breathe new life into American cinema. Although the film was not a success on its original cinema run (due to a studio who didn't know how to market it), its reputation on DVD grew to the cult classic it now stands as. Chuck Palahniuk is a thoughtful and witty writer but it is debatable whether he would have achieved the subsequent success he has were it not for the boost the film gave him (all susequent attempts to adapt his work for the screen have stalled at the development stage, with the exception of the box office failure Choke).

Next: Maryland

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Week 10: State - Delaware

Delaware, known as The First State for being on December 7, 1787 the first state to ratify the Constitution of the United States, is the second smallest of the fifty states (and the 45th most populous), ahead only of Rhode Island in size. Today Delaware is primarily known as the most corporate business-friendly state in the country. Its Court of Chancery (one of the few remaining in the nation, which has jurisdiction over equity cases and corporate disputes) and the Delaware General Corporation Law have formed a worldwide reputation for granting broad discretion to corporate boards of directors and giving great flexibility to corporations to manage their affairs. For these reasons, a great number of companies are incorporated in Delaware (over 50% of US publicly traded corporations and 60% of the Fortune 500 companies), including 60% of the companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Aside from its beaches and tax-free shopping Delaware does not thrive on tourism (the Visit Delaware website boasts "Delaware, We're not far from where you are!"), and in addition to being the only state without a commercial air service, it has no places designated as national parks, national seashores, national battlefields, national memorials, or national monuments. There are also no network broadcast-television stations operating solely in Delaware. Wilmington is the state's largest city and its economic hub, and the state capital is Dover.

I was worried early on that there were no good books set in Delaware. In fact in terms of films set in the state I have yet to find any I have heard of either: Trigger Man (2007) or Wrestling (2008) anyone? I consulted some other forums undergoing similar endeavors and most of them had skipped the state altogether. Not wanting to be beaten so easily I did a little bit more research and eventually found a book that, although it never states directly where it is set, I have on good authority is set in the city of Wilmington.

Fight Club was published in 1996 and was Chuck Palahniuk's first novel. It was later turned into a 1999 film by David Fincher, and to prove it's set in Delaware here's a direct quote from Fincher's DVD audio commentary:

00:25:35: "The book takes place in Wilmington, Delaware, because that’s like a headquarters for a lot of credit card companies. We wanted to make the film take place in Wilmington, Delaware, but there’s some kind of clearance issues if it’s a specific town then you have to get clearances for specific names, streets, you know, apartment buildings."

Review to follow this week...

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Pennsylvania and Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)

Pennsylvania’s John Updike, as with New Hampshire’s Grace Metalious and Peyton Place, is another writer who has taken the places and people that he grew up surrounded by and has moulded them into a work of fiction. Thus, in 'Rabbit, Run' Reading in south-eastern Pennsylvania where Updike was born - the fifth most populous city in the state - becomes Brewer, and the borough of Mt. Penn becomes Mt. Judge, as does the nearby mountain peak after which it is named. The most famous landmark of Mt. Penn is the Pagoda Hotel, renamed in Updike’s fictional world as the Pinnacle Hotel, a Japanese-style novelty building built in 1908 which somehow managed to withstand anti-Japanese sentiment during World War II and now stands as a symbol of the city of Reading.

Updike described Reading as “a grand place—thriving downtown, factories pouring out smoke and textiles and steel and pretzels and beer. It was a town that made things. It was a muscular, semi-tough kind of place.” And likewise ‘Rabbit, Run’ is a tough, unsentimental book that I enjoyed much more so than The Witches of Eastwick (see Rhode Island). The story deals with 26-year old former high-school athletics star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom who walks out on his dead-end job, his alcoholic pregnant wife and young son, and takes up with a prostitute. Updike makes no attempt to glamorise his protagonist or portray him as a Holden Caulfield-esque anti-hero, and the book was written as a response to On The Road in portraying the hurt that is brought to those around you if you try to walk away from your life. Updike is a writer who likes to beautify or poeticise the mundane, and whereas writers dealing with similar themes such as Fante or Bukowski could be seen as the anti-Updike, in that the simplicity of their prose (which I personally love) reflects the normalcy of the situations, Updike writes in a much weightier prose, which can be tortuous at times but is aided by the fluidness of the present tense - one of several well regarded, early usages of the style. Updike returned to the character of Rabbit in the sequels Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990), and Rabbit Remembered (2001). The book was also adapted into a little seen 1970 film starring James Caan as Rabbit and was also the key inspiration for the 2002 Eminem film 8 Mile (the screenplay opens with a quote from the film "If you have the guts to be yourself...other people'll pay your price," the main protagonist is nicknamed “Rabbit”, the film opens with the character moving in with his alcoholic mother after having dumped his pregnant girlfriend, and the last song on the soundtrack is called “Rabbit Run”).

Next: Delaware