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March/April 2021
Charles de Lint
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David J. Skal
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F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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by David J. Skal

Unspeakable Streaming


Authors Henry James and Matt Ruff have both laid territorial claim to fantastic realms which superficially may have little in common, but seeing their work freely adapted into a pair of ten-part limited series on Netflix and HBO illuminates the creative advantages and pitfalls of the extended format that has become a go-to strategy for adapting imaginative literature to the screen.

Netflix's The Haunting of Bly Manor, a follow-up to last year's The Haunting of Hill House and helmed again by Mike Flanagan, is a sprawling adaptation of James's 1898 warhorse The Turn of the Screw, while Lovecraft Country takes off from Ruff's acclaimed 2016 novel, and, following the fearless flight path of producer/writer/showrunner Misha Green, sets down in a significantly altered version—arguably improved—of Ruff's visionary juxtaposition of 1955 Jim Crow America with pop culture horrors inspired by Lovecraft, Weird Tales, and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Although general readers have tended to accept The Turn of the Screw—about a Victorian governess convinced that the young siblings in her charge at Bly, an English country estate, are being possessed and corrupted by the ghosts of their previous caretaker, Miss Jessel, a suicide, and her reprobate lover, Peter Quint—as a fairly straightforward ghost story, critics have strenuously wrangled over the narrative nuances for over a century. Is the governess a trustworthy witness? Or are the ghosts her delusional projections arising hysterically to fill some psychosexual void? I've always felt that it's perfectly okay to have it both ways: the ghosts are real, and that part of that reality is feeding on disordered mental states to manifest themselves.

The first dramatic adaptation of the story was a 1950 Broadway play, The Innocents, by William Archibald, which, heavily revised by Truman Capote, served as the basis of Jack Clayton's 1961 film starring Deborah Kerr. As in earlier iterations, the haunted children are two orphans, Miles and Flora (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth and Amelie Bea Smith in the new series), whose guardian uncle in London (Henry Thomas) wants nothing to do with them, and for whom the governess, (Victoria Pedretti) is given sole responsibility. The position has not been easy to fill. The governess—who narrates James's story but is never named—seems to have been the quite sheltered, if not outright sequestered (or even institutionalized?) daughter of a country parson.

James titillated his readers by never revealing the nature of Miles's unacceptable behavior at a boarding school that has caused his expulsion. In the original story its name cannot be spoken, and because it seems to have been encouraged by the ghost of a man whose own transgressions, imagined by the governess to be so loathsome she cannot even describe them on paper, we don't need much of a roadmap to reach a rather obvious conclusion. Oscar Wilde began his fall brazenly teasing the public about the nature of Dorian Gray's crimes, and Robert Louis Stevenson similarly set up his Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a seeming tale of gay blackmail. There was very little language in the 1890s to describe sexual variability, but "degeneracy" was a catch-all term in James's 1890s to describe the unsavory or the unspeakable. Without using the d-word, The Turn of the Screw effectively evokes it. (I highly recommend Emma Thompson's reading of the original story for Audible, in which she perfectly captures the governess's rising panic whenever she begins to imagine things uncomfortably unimaginable). In The Innocents, screenwriter Capote understood he could only go so far in delineating Miles's transgressions, but effectively evoked a boy's precocious heterosexuality, culminating with a mouth-to-mouth kiss with the governess, startling even today. In The Haunting of Bly Manor, Flanagan avoids sexualizing Miles's behavior, presenting instead a boy simply prone to unprovoked violence. Sex is left to the grownups, with any residual hint of homoeroticism displaced to a lesbian subplot not involving the children.

Although Flanagan modernizes the setting to 1987 and embellishes the plot, ten hours is still a long slog for the underlying storyline of The Turn of the Screw, and the series almost of necessity adds material from two other Jamesian ghost stories unrelated to The Turn: "The Jolly Corner" and "The Romance of Certain Old Clothes," plus a good deal of original invention. Episode padding is becoming a frequent and regrettable occurrence in the limited series format. Might it be time to just start reining in these projects to a more manageable length?

Several actors from Flanagan's The Haunting of Hill House return, but their characters are new. Pedretti (Nell in Hill House) plays Dani Clayton, the governess, the acquisition of a name being a subtle wink in the direction of The Innocents. Dani is an American, adrift in England as she tries to escape a guilty stateside past. There's no ambiguity about the reality of the Bly ghosts, or their hold on the children. Dani even brings a ghost of her own from home.

As Quint, the male Bly ghost, Oliver Jackson-Cohen reproduces a heavy Scottish accent so faithfully that many American viewers will be begging for closed captions. It's good to see him on screen again after his near-total disappearance as The Invisible Man last year. He's quite convincing as a handsome thief/abusive prick, but nowhere as effective as he was as the doomed, drug addicted brother in Hill House. Miss Jessel is played by Tahira Sharif as intelligent and fairly self-possessed, making her victimization by Quint all the more frightening. Here the character of the housekeeper, Hannah Grose, usually presented as an illiterate, impressionable foil to the governess, is transformed by T'Nia Miller into an austere, enigmatic presence in a tangled, semi-requited relationship with the manor's cook, Owen (Rahul Kohli). Henry Thomas's absentee guardian is more complicated than anything James could have imagined—a tormented alcoholic plagued by a doppelgänger and an adulterous past with the children's dead mother.

If this sounds like a cluttered soap opera, well, it is. The revenants lose much of their power when they are revealed to be the pawns of other forces, here a female ghost from a centuries-old backstory that occupies an entire late episode. The whole series seems overpopulated in both characters and incidents, as well as stingily withheld flashbacks. Where The Turn of the Screw drew its narrative fascination from a relentless deepening of a single obsession, the Netflix reincarnation is seriously weakened by its scattershot focus.

H.P. Lovecraft was a major purveyor of the unspeakable, but the most unspoken thing about him, until recent years, has been his virulent racism. Long conveniently ignored, it has caused his reputation serious harm. However, novelist Matt Ruff used a bit of literary jujutsu in his novel Lovecraft Country, putting Lovecraft's bigotry to some positive use as a metaphor of the real-world racial horrors faced by Black Americans in the mid-twentieth century. As far as I've noticed, Ruff, who is white, hasn't taken serious flack for cultural appropriation, and in fact demonstrates a remarkable ability to immerse his readers convincingly in the mid-century African American culture. Created by Misha Green (Underground, Heroes, Sons of Anarchy, Helix), HBO's adaptation attracted the imprimatur of Jordan Peele, director of Get Out and Us and executive producer of -The Twilight Zone- series, who served as an executive producer along with J.J. Abrams and others.

It's Chicago in 1955, and Atticus "Tic" Freeman (Jonathan Majors) has returned from service in Korea to discover his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams) has gone missing in New England, and left a letter inviting his son to discover his family's secret past in Ardham, Massachusetts. Atticus is a fan of weird fiction, H.P. Lovecraft being among his favorite writers, and he immediately recognizes the name of the town as a barely concealed variation on Lovecraft's Arkham. Atticus's uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance) disapproves of his son's interest in the notoriously racist author, and is the publisher of a respected resource book called The Negro Safe Travel Guide, similar to The Negro Motorist Green Book, an historic annual handbook. The Guide proves immediately useful as George, Atticus, and Tic's childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) embark on a quest in Lovecraft territory, encountering the Jim Crow horrors of a "sundown town" where Black travelers who linger after dark can be summarily shot or hanged. Satisfying as it is to see racist cops have their heads and limbs torn off by Lovecraft's shoggoths (here reconceived as multi-eyed mammalian predators), it is also a sad reminder in the age of Black Lives Matter that such remedies don't really exist. In Ardham, Atticus learns that his bloodline leads back to a society of wealthy white supremacists adept at black magic.

The Freeman's extended family includes Leti's half-sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), Atticus's aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), and his niece Diana, also known as "Dee" (Jada Harris), a character who does not appear in the book, but provides one of the strongest anchors for the series. An intelligent, talented youngster—she aspired to draw comic books—she is relentlessly stalked and threatened by two of the show's most brilliantly evil creations, a pair of demonic, dancing picaninnies, inspired by the character of "Topsy" in Uncle Tom's Cabin by way of Linda Blair.

In the book, Ruby is given a potion that allows her to live as a white woman, at least for a time, during which she begins to experience racist feelings of her own. The race-reversal interludes in the novel involve a little blood, minimally described, but in the series the alternative body erupts out of its counterpart with a complete shedding of the skin and gobs of subcutaneous fat, leaving quite a mess on the floor, although occasionally someone will throw down a plastic tarp for the carpet's sake. The transformations become increasingly disgusting, a literalized metaphor for the demeaning pressures on Black women, if at all possible, to pass as white. The effect goes into overdrive when another character achieves a gender body swap in a bravura half minute that both pays homage to the Rick Baker/David Naughton transformation in An American Werewolf in London, and then some.

The series' expanded, panoramic plot incorporates some real racial atrocities, like the murder of Emmett Till, who appears as a childhood friend of Dee's, and a meticulous recreation of the 1920 Tulsa Massacre, visited via time travel. There is also a flashback to Atticus's stint in Korea, and his involvement with a soul-draining succubus. Unlike The Haunting of Bly Manor, the departures from the source material serve to deepen and expand Ruff's vision. At the time of this writing, there has been no announcement about a second season for Lovecraft Country, although Green has indicated that talks with HBO are underway. I hope they go well. One might question the decision to kill off a major character in the final episode—it doesn't happen in the book—but given that Lovecraft Country is all about magic, anything might be possible.


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