Weekend links 192

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“Chloromgonfus detectis, a dragonfly that can detect volatile pollutants.” A speculative insect by artist Vincent Fournier.

• “…a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine with the purpose of exploring the Cenozoic era…” Butterflies tied together Vladimir Nabokov’s home, science, and writing, says Mary Ellen Hannibal.

• More ghosts: Kira Cochrane on the Victorian tradition of the Christmas ghost story, and Michael Newton on why Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) remains one of the very best ghost films. No argument there.

• Should you require further persuasion, Daniel Barrow reviews I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America 1950-1990, an album still receiving heavy rotation in these quarters.

Swords, daggers—weapons with a blade—retained a mysterious, talismanic significance for Borges, imbued with predetermined codes of conduct and honor. The short dagger had particular power, because it required the fighters to draw death close, in a final embrace. As a young man, in the 1920s, Borges prowled the obscure barrios of Buenos Aires, seeking the company of cuchilleros, knife fighters, who represented to him a form of authentic criollo nativism that he wished to know and absorb.

The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges by Michael Greenberg

The Junky’s Christmas (1993): a seasonal tale from William Burroughs turned into a short animated film by Nick Donkin and Melodie McDaniel.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 101 by Jan Jelinek, and The Conjuror’s Hexmas by Seraphic Manta.

• Meet the 92-year-old Egyptian [Halim El-Dabh] who invented electronic music.

The Mysterious Lawn Home of Frohnleiten, Austria.

The Peacock Room at Sammezzano Castle in Italy.

The Quay Brothers’ Universum.

Alan Bennett‘s diary for 2013.

Butterfly (1968) by Can | Butterfly (1974) by Herbie Hancock | Butterfly (1998) by Talvin Singh

Nigel Kneale’s Woman in Black

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The British television tradition of screening a ghost story at Christmas was filled in 1989 with Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black. This isn’t one of the best contributions to the annual ghost drama but at 100 minutes it’s one of the longest, and it has its supporters, some of whom value it above the recent Hammer film production. Seeing as I’d re-watched Nigel Kneale’s major film and TV works earlier this year I thought I’d give The Woman in Black another look. It was better than I remembered although it still left me feeling unsatisfied.

I’ve not read Susan Hill’s book so can’t say how it compares to the television version in any detail. (Wikipedia has a spoiler-heavy list of the differences.) I did see Stephen Mallatratt’s play in 1988, however, the first adaptation of the book which has since become one of London’s most popular theatre productions. The play conjures an effective sense of dread but relies a little too much on loud noises to shock the audience at crucial moments. This is a cheap trick in bad horror films (Wes Craven does it a lot), and it’s just as cheap a trick on a stage. Nigel Kneale may have altered Hill’s story to a degree which apparently displeased her but he didn’t resort to any Craven tricks.

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The BBC’s Christmas ghost stories have tended to be MR James stories, and The Woman in Black is very much a James pastiche which no doubt helped make it attractive to ITV. All the James hallmarks are there: a man of letters (solicitor rather than a scholar) visiting an isolated part of the English countryside; a lonely house; fearful locals; mysterious deaths; documentary evidence that requires examination; a haunting.

Adrian Rawlins is the young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, given the task of putting the estate of a dead woman in order. Rawlins would have been fine in a smaller role but he wasn’t a good choice for a central character, not when Kidd is on screen every minute of the running time. Far better is the always excellent Bernard Hepton as a genial landowner, a very different role to his sinister Fisher in Robin Redbreast. There’s a lot of solid period detail—Kneale’s dialogue fixes the date at around 1925—and the writing and direction manages to avoid insulting the intelligence. In place of the usual voiceover reading of letters we have Kidd listening to a succession of recording cylinders, an unlikely thing for an elderly woman to be using but it does give the film a connection back to Van Helsing’s device in Dracula. There’s even a surreptitious reference to Kneale’s “stone tape” theory when Kidd says that the ghostly sounds he keeps hearing are like a recording of a terrible event. Director Herbert Wise does some clever hide-and-seek business with the spectral woman, only fumbling things near the end when he makes the mistake of trying to imitate Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. So why does this version still remain unsatisfying?

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