Taken the Crazy Train – John Claude Smith’s The Wilderness Within

Nobody does an acid trip of a story quite like John Claude Smith. What I’ve read of his short fiction is dazzling, and weird, and dazzlingly weird. His first novel, Riding the Centipede (which I reviewed here a while back), was a marvellous debut, a neon-lit, hallucinatory nightmare of manic proportions. Smith’s writing thus far feels like the perfect distillation of gonzo horror fiction, a combination of great character beats, off-the-wall insanity, and an enormous bit of fun.

His newly released second novel, The Wilderness Within, is less of a gut-punch – to begin with, at least. it opens with protagonist Derek Gray visiting his long-time friend, Frank Harlan Marshall, who lives on the edge of a big old creepy forest with only one neighbour in sight.

This is a book exclusively about artistic types, and delves deeply into, among other things, the minutiae of the creative process. Derek and Frank are both very successful horror writers. Frank, whose work is much more bleak and brutal than his friend’s, is also a bit more successful, with books on the bestseller lists and blockbuster film adaptations earning him riches and a celebrity status that seems much scarcer for writers these days, especially of horror.

Anyway, the two catch up, shooting the shit and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. At some point, their comedian and actor friend, “Dizzy Izzy” Haberstein, turns up, and Derek’s sense of reality starts to skew. Smith skilfully portrays the interactions between the three friends as insecurities, old feuds and nostalgia rise to the surface.

Derek also strikes up a friendship/flirtation with Frank’s only neighbour, the singer known as Alethea. With her interest in philosophy and metaphysics, her looks and wit and charm and intelligence, Alethea comes across as more male fantasy than rounded character, at least to begin with. At the core of the novel’s first half is Derek’s growing connection and interaction with Alethea; their conversations about philosophy, humanity and nature – and, importantly, humanity’s relationship with nature – lay the foundations for the thematic direction Wilderness takes.

From here, once dynamics and core relationships have been established, the weirdness starts to creep in. Some characters are not what they seem, and maybe Derek’s conception of reality isn’t, either. These questions keep popping up at various points throughout the book, which often has the quality of a dream or drug-trip. Unfortunately for the characters, it’s not all in their heads, but that doesn’t mean that what’s in their heads is harmless.

Where Riding the Centipede was a fairly fast-paced novel that juggled a number of intersecting – and often colliding – character arcs, The Wilderness Within is much more of a character piece, with its introspective first-person narration and its exploration of its protagonist’s primary relationships. There’s still a copious spray of weirdness, especially in the second half, but by the very nature of the story, this plays off and is shaped by the humanity at the heart of the novel.

In a lot of ways The Wilderness Within is a book about the past; Derek is constantly rubbing the present thin enough that it beads through, but the foundation of Derek and Frank’s friendship, their years of adventure and success, is mostly kept out of the way. It looms in the reader’s peripheries, crouching behind the presently unfolding madness, more a concealed framework than an overt influence.

What Smith does very well is craft this world of artists and situate it firmly in our reality; it really feels like his characters and their work – books, films, music – exist within our pop culture bubble, and as I read about them it was almost disheartening not to be able to go and consume some of it.

There are some sharp, gorgeous observations here too, though. One character is “noticeably winding down”, and Derek observes that “it reminded me of the nervous deceleration of a music box, the end creeping up to sweep it into silence.”

On the whole the novel has the grainy feel of horror made popular in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s more than a whiff of Clive Barker in there, but also some unexpected flavours. The first few chapters are reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, with Derek’s exhaustive descriptions of (in this case fictional) bands.

This influence carries through into the feel of the protagonist, too. He reminded me in a less sleazy way of one of Ellis’ characters, a dysfunctional world-weary guy cutting through life, telling his stories but not really knee-deep in any of them; he has a history and a life but he’s strangely removed from his past despite being so informed by it. I could never quite connect to Derek, never bridge that gap between the fiction and the human, despite the admirable world- and character-building chops Smith clearly demonstrates here. Derek talks about his emotions, but he never really seems to feel them, and subsequently neither did I. This doesn’t mean the novel isn’t engaging – it absolutely is – but I felt like more of an audience member than a participant.

Smith writes with gusto and honesty, the weirdness flaring across the page. The story jumps between this great pulpy weirdness reminiscent of Barker, King (especially The Shining) and a little Campbell, and the more overt philosophising that manifests as conversations between characters (most prevalently, Derek and Alethea). This is fine, but would have worked a lot better in certain parts if it wasn’t quite so meticulously explained. Philosophy as exposition, as character-building conversation is hard to pull off at the best of times, more so when it’s being juggled with a bunch of other big ideas and set pieces. It mostly works here, but I feel like some fat-trimming, some pushing down of these ideas into the story’s subtext might have served its flow much better. This is especially evident during some of the more action-centric scenes, in which characters will have an aside with each other while fleeing something or engaged in serious conflict. This breaks the rhythm of the action and, more importantly, the tension such action evokes.

The ideas themselves, however, are all very engaging, even if the execution falters at times. This is a novel packed with ideas. Smith’s observations about the nature of sounds are fascinating, as are the existential musings on nature and our relationship with it; not only its alien allure, its otherness, but the idea that we shape nature by our perception of it, and it shapes us in turn, is carried through to its logical conclusion.

Smith is at his best when the shit hits the fan and things get really weird. You can feel him having fun with scenes and characters, his prose revelling in grotesque turns of phrase. Everything becomes tactile and delicious as he puts his characters through all colours of hell. The action, when he kicks into full gear, is written with a kind of joy and flair for juggling; all these elements stacked and tumbling around each other in a whirl of chaos, before Smith catches them momentarily, and then back up into the air they go.

There’s a cartoonish, almost slapstick tone at times that feels both intentional and familiar after Smith’s psychedelic debut. In a book like Centipede, this really works to its advantage. In Wilderness this is effective for the most part, but with a narrative more grounded between reality and what seems to be a more dreamlike, philosophical breed of horror, this can sometimes blunt the tension, making comic what should be taut and terrifying.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realise that this may be the point. That line between horror and comedy, encapsulated nowhere more perfectly than in Dizzy Izzy’s character and his various incarnations/inspirations, is straddled so violently that the two often converge. There’s something hysterical about the later, more outlandish scenes that, had they not been blackly funny, would actually have fallen flat.

The final reveal(s), as telegraphed to an extent by the themes laid out from the beginning, is both brilliant and disturbing and a little reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s latest controversial offering, mother! (which I reviewed recently). There’s something beneath the skin of this revelation that’s more than a little unpleasant in its almost masturbatory exploration of the ego and/of the artist. It explains some of the misgivings I had about earlier scenes and characters, but within the story, this does nobody any favours. To this extent, there was no character I really rooted for here, although I suspect that might be Smith’s intention. I couldn’t relate to the protagonist in the same way I can’t relate to – again – a Bret Easton Ellis character, but that doesn’t mean they’re not engaging or fun to read.

This is a relatively slim novel, but it feels like a big, busy one. I admire Smith’s ambition and especially his ability to corral humour, horror and pathos together into scenes. His tone and his style, after Riding the Centipede and The Wilderness Within, is unique and engaging and already quite recognisable. More than that, it’s a style I recommend you get acquainted with.




mother! (Film Review)

Another year, another divisive Darren Aronofsky film. The fervour that critics get into over his work, either to condemn or praise, is almost exhausting, if only because it’s the expected reaction at this point. But I guess that’s better than indifference, which, exceptions aside, is how I’ve feel about the majority of what I’ve seen in the cinema lately: bland, forgettable stories presented/edited in a bland, forgettable way. An unpleasant percentage of this year’s cinematic output – off the top of my head, The Dark Tower, Flatliners, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Kingsman: The Golden Circle (the last of which I’m extremely sad to have to put on this list) – has been unforgivably dull.

Just to be clear, this is not me being a film snob. I’ll happily forgive a film for not being overly original if it at least has something going for it, some visual or narrative flare, an interesting character/performance – just something to tell me that someone on some level of the production really cared about it.

But I’ll get to my point. Love or hate them, you can’t say Aronofsky’s films don’t have some sort of visual or narrative flare, and you definitely can’t say that anyone involved with them is phoning it in.

For the most part, I’m a big fan of his films. Requiem for a Dream is as harrowing and inventive as Clint Mansell’s listen-on-endless-repeat score, not to mention featuring a Jared Leto before he become the method-acting wanker we know today. The Fountain – with another, arguably even better, Mansell score – is an ambitious, beautiful sci-fi love story that embraces its own bold weirdness and works all the better because of it. Black Swan is a crisp, creepy psychological horror, in part a love letter to the Giallo horror films of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. Noah is a batshit crazy, visually orgasmic take on the famous Biblical story, complete with stone angels and two insane performances from Russell Crowe and Ray Winstone.

Aronofsky’s latest, mother!, its lowercase title punctuated with an exclamation mark, is both as hysterical and annoying as said title suggests. I liked it though, or I think I did. I definitely liked parts of it. I didn’t not like it, at least?

It’s incredibly ambitious, and goes in a direction you don’t at first suspect. Personally I think it’s one of his most problematic films, but also one of his most interesting. I still find myself thinking about it even a couple of weeks after watching it, my head buzzing with its escalating weirdness, and the ideas it throws around like blood in a slaughterhouse.

When I saw the film’s trailer (which you can watch here), I thought it was a work of art in itself, a sharp, scratchy rhythm of image, sound and text that disturbs and delights all at once. On one hand it encapsulates the tone of the film itself, but on the other it doesn’t come close to revealing what it’s really about. (Not that I’m complaining. In these days of trailers giving away every damn plot point, this can only be a good thing.) What looks like a straightforward horror film is actually something much more, and much weirder.

The basic plot of mother! follows Jennifer Lawrence’s unnamed woman (referred to as Her, or Mother in the credits) living in a newly refurbished house in what looks like the tranquil middle of nowhere with Javier Bardem’s Him, a poet struggling with writer’s block. Soon, the couple’s idyll is disturbed by the arrival of Ed Harris and later his wife, Michelle Pfeiffer (Man and Woman, respectively), whose extended stay and strange behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing for Lawrence’s character. To say that the situation escalates from there would be a massive understatement.

This is Aronofsky’s first film that hasn’t featured a music score from his go-to composer, Clint Mansell. I’ve said that I’m a big fan of their work together, so I found this a little disappointing. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson – whose work on Sicario and Arrival is incredible – is credited as the “sound and music consultant”. In lieu of a traditional score, then, the film employs a creeping, creaking soundscape that follows and circles and stalks Jennifer Lawrence through the house, from room to room and from danger to danger.

Along with the intimate over-the-shoulder camera-work, this makes for an unsettling experience. I don’t know if this film is really all that enjoyable or entertaining in the strictest sense, but it’s not really supposed to be. Everything here – the sound design, the cinematography, the performances, the disturbing escalation of events – is all very effective in making the viewer uncomfortable even as they remain fascinated.

For the first half, anyway. Before the proverbial shit hits the fan, mother! plays out like a very well made psychological thriller with a fantastic hallucinatory edge. I felt as uncomfortable, bewildered and claustrophobic as Lawrence’s protagonist seems too. These strange, creepy people in her house, the escalating sense of terror that soon becomes literal and immediate. One brilliant scene involving a secret door in the basement made me think that the film was moving towards the occult, but the direction it takes from here is very different.

After this, when the chaos really kicks in, the film loses some of its flare and momentum. Inside the house – a setting we never leave – crazy piles upon crazy in an ugly, almost annoying way. A few scenes involving soldiers seem a bit too ridiculous and don’t really gel with the previously established atmosphere. Just when you think events can’t go any further, they do, and while this does culminate in a brutal, gorgeous ending, I can’t help but feel a little let down by some of the insanity that came before. I like what Aronofsky does with the story, but I feel like he could have executed it in a less screechy, handheld way. Something with a bit more visual intensity would have worked much better before that incredible ending, and might have made the film’s symbolism a bit more digestible.

For me, that symbolism is one of mother!’s downfalls. Not the symbolism itself, maybe, but the way it’s shoved in the audience’s face, the glaringly literal obviousness of it. There are more than a few Biblical references in there; after a while the film’s practically teeming with them. Some work, while others are very on-the-nose.

It’s not that I have a problem with what mother! is about, but in a way that seems to be all it’s really about. The allegory, the metaphors and symbolism, that’s essentially the film. The surface is the subtext, and Aronofsky seems so intent on conveying this, he’s forgotten to give us something more than that.

One of the most unpleasant aspects of the film is how gleefully nasty it is in its treatment of Jennifer Lawrence’s protagonist, effectively a muse for Javier Bardem’s creatively blocked poet. There’s no descent from human to monster for Bardem here; from the opening shots he’s never a sympathetic or even very complex character. The same could be said for every “character” here, Lawrence included. The performances are all searing and powerful to watch, but some have more of a focus than others. Ed Harris and Domhnall Gleeson are criminally underutilised, although Stephen McHattie does a great job with a creepy extended cameo.

But beyond the roles everyone plays, the only humanity on show here is its ugly, messy, chaotic side. Without giving too much away, though, this seems to be the point, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. Again, everything’s symbolic, but whether these elements stand up on their own is another question. I just don’t know if it’s a question that anyone needs to bother asking, let alone answering.

I’m sure there are other interpretations to be gleaned from mother!, and of course not everyone will come to the same conclusions. I’m not even sure I can truly decide how I feel about this film. Some of the threads it toys with in terms of Bardem’s struggle with artistic expression, the treatment of Lawrence’s character, and the literal events playing out onscreen are pretty disturbing, but I keep swinging between feeling a little bit angry and disgusted about this, and wondering if maybe it works for exactly that reason.

Whatever I ultimately think of it, though, at least I do actually think of it, which is something to be thankful for in this year’s dribble of forgettable Hollywood sewage.

But that doesn’t make mother! – or its annoyingly punctuated title – any less irritating, fascinating, disappointing and thought-provoking.