The Debutante, a film by Elizabeth Hobbs


The Debutante is an 8-minute animated adaptation of a short story by Leonora Carrington, a tale of bestial havoc wreaked by a hyena on an aristocratic dinner-dance. This wish-fulfilling fantasy, which Carrington wrote in the 1930s, is one of the author’s more popular pieces of fiction. The story has been anthologised many times, notably by Angela Carter in 1986 who included it in Wayward Girls & Wicked Women: An Anthology of Stories. Elizabeth Hobbs illustrates the piece with hand-painted rotoscoping, a technique which many people will associate with the Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds sequence in Yellow Submarine although this is by no means the earliest or only example of the form. It’s a useful process for stories which require the blending of the fantastic with the mundane.


Another hyena encountering the English aristocracy may be found in Esmé by Saki, the first story in his essential Chronicles of Clovis collection. Saki shared Leonora Carrington’s anarchic impulses when presented with ennervating upper-class rituals. Enough of his stories feature wild animals and eruptions of chaos in country houses that I wonder whether there was any Saki influence upon The Debutante. I’d guess not—Leonora Carrington possessed more than enough wayward imagination of her own—but whatever the answer, Saki remained fascinated (or appalled) by the aristocracy and their absurdities, while Leonora followed her debutante heroine to a welcome exile from their world.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Leonora Carrington’s Surrealist survival kit
Leonora Carrington and the House of Fear

Sredni Vashtar, 1981


And speaking of Sredni Vashtar (see yesterday’s post)… Screenwriter and director Andrew Birkin has a YouTube channel where he recently posted his own adaptation of the Saki story, a 25-minute film I hadn’t seen before. Or at least I don’t remember seeing it before. Birkin’s note says that the film was made to accompany screenings of the third film in the Omen series, The Final Conflict, which he also wrote. I saw this at the cinema but don’t recall any short being shown with it (then again, I don’t recall much of The Final Conflict either). This must have been one of the last occasions when a short was commissioned to be shown with a first-run feature since the practice was discontinued soon after. Sredni Vashtar is a fitting companion for a horror film replete with sinister tragedies, but shorts and features weren’t always so well-matched. I saw Alien three times on its first run, and on each occasion had to sit through a documentary about the ongoing Mod revival. “Yes, yes, yes, you love your Parkas and Vespas but we’re here for the monsters and spaceships…”


Anyway, Birkin’s Sredni Vashtar is a superior adaptation of the story that’s all the more impressive when you read that it was shot in a mere five days. Saki’s tale is an unusual one for having a serious tone that sets it apart from the stories that surround it in the Chronicles of Clovis collection. The default Saki mode is one of cheerful flippancy whatever the subject may be, and it’s often the ironic distance between the events described and the offhand manner in which they’re related that makes his work so memorable. Sredni Vashtar‘s tale of an ailing boy’s revenge on an oppressive guardian seems to have been more heartfelt than many of his other entertainments. Alexander Puttnam, the son of film producer David Puttnam, plays the browbeaten Conradin, while Birkin’s mother, Judy Campbell, is the boy’s guardian aunt. Themes from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana are put to good use, and would have helped tie the short to the Omen series, the first two of which were scored with Jerry Goldsmith’s thundering Latin chants. There’s also a fleeting reference to JM Barrie, whose life Birkin had dramatised for the BBC, while the film as a whole looks forward to the not-so-innocent childhood rituals that Birkin explored in his debut feature as director, The Cement Garden. Watch Sredni Vashtar here, and if you enjoy it do read the story as well.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Saki: The Improper Stories of HH Munro
The Chronicles of Clovis and other sarcastic delights

Curious Relations


“It is the function of creative people to perceive relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expressions that seem utterly different, and to be able to Connect the seemingly Unconnected.” — William Plomer

Regular readers will know that I relish an art mystery, and also enjoy finding pastiches of Aubrey Beardsley’s endlessly influential drawings. The cover of this book by William Plomer and Anthony Butts, a gift from the generous Mr TjZ, manages to combine both fixations in one. Curious Relations was first published in 1947 with the authors concealed behind the pseudonym “William D’Arfey”. The Sphere edition dates from 1968, a year when Beardsley mania was still prevalent in Britain following the landmark retrospective of the artist’s works at the V&A in 1966. The mystery on this occasion is the identity of the cover artist who isn’t credited, although the solution (for once) hasn’t been particularly elusive. After looking through the Sphere covers at ISFDB I guessed that Bill Botten might be responsible since publishers have a tendency to redeploy artists and designers, and Botten’s covers for science fiction novels displayed a bold graphic style. The guess proved correct, thanks to Mr Botten having a website that details his long career as designer, illustrator and art director for Sphere, Jonathan Cape and others. Some of his other covers have a Beardsley-like quality although there don’t seem to be any more direct pastiches.


Bill Botten cover for My Mother (1972) by Georges Bataille.

As for Curious Relations, this is Plomer and Butts’ account of the upstairs and downstairs world of the d’Arfeys and the Mountfaucons, two invented branches of the Edwardian aristocracy based on Butts’ own family, a confection that looks bizarre and absurd enough for me to enjoy. Where the English upper classes are concerned I prefer to see them skewered by the acid wit of Saki; I only want to hear about Downton Abbey if it’s invaded by Sredni Vashtar and his ravening polecat horde. Biographical notes describe Plomer as homosexual so that’s another plus if this is reflected in the book. The double entendre of the title suggests as much. We’ll see.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Aubrey Beardsley archive

Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey


Cover design by Jim Tierney; photo by Richard Corman.

When so many current biographies are recounting the lives of those about whom we’ve already heard a great deal (see the new biography of Oscar Wilde by Matthew Sturgis), a book exploring the career of a previously undocumented yet worthwhile figure is especially welcome. Such is the case with Born to Be Posthumous, Mark Dery’s life of the elusive Edward Gorey: artist, writer, illustrator, book designer, book creator, bibliophile, theatre designer, cat lover and balletomane.


The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963).

Gorey’s small books have long been one of the more curious fixtures of American culture: many of them look like children’s books but aren’t (unless the child is Wednesday Addams); others look like comic books but they aren’t comics either. The books are sometimes (but not always) Surrealist fables; or brief accounts of irreducible mystery; or sombre inexplicabilities; or camp ripostes to the pieties of Victorian morality; infrequently spiced with black humour and with lurches into outright horror. Gorey delivered his miniature tales in an idiosyncratic drawing style that combines a cartoon-like stylisation with the density of shading found in old wood engravings, a blend that would prove influential as his popularity grew. As Dery notes in his book’s introduction, without Edward Gorey’s work there would be no Lemony Snicket, while Tim Burton would be a skeletal shadow of his present self. (Given the latter’s current output, this might do him some good. But I digress.)


The Doubtful Guest (1957).

In Britain, however, Gorey remains a cult rather than cultural figure, still overshadowed by better-known contemporaries such as Maurice Sendak and Charles Addams. Until the publication of the Amphigorey story collections Gorey’s books were produced in small editions with such a limited availability you were more likely to encounter his art on the cover of another author’s book than within the pages of his own. I became aware of Gorey’s work by gradual osmosis. The first substantial piece I read about him was his entry in Philip Core’s Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth (1984), in which Core’s mention of an art style “recollecting Victorian engravings” marked Gorey as an artist to be investigated. Two years later he received a longer entry in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural edited by Jack Sullivan. (Camp and horror: how many other artists sit so easily in both worlds?) But Gorey is absent from many books about 20th-century illustrators, and despite the sequential nature of his work you won’t find him in histories of comic art.


Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre (1979).

In a way it’s fitting that the work of a man who was adamant in his determination to avoid being pinned down should be so difficult to find. But it’s also a shame that the work of an ardent Anglophile should be hard to find in the country that fuelled his imagination. Among Gorey’s literary favourites Dery lists Jane Austen and Agatha Christie together with Ronald Firbank, Saki, and EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels. (The latter trio are all present in Core’s book on camp, which no doubt makes Gorey camp to the core. Whether he would have approved of being labelled as such is another matter.) I wasn’t surprised by the mention of Saki when so many of Saki’s story titles (The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope) sound like Gorey books, while many of the stories themselves are like Gorey scenarios in prose. Not all Gorey’s work is camp or comic, however; the 32 drawings that comprise the wordless masterpiece of The West Wing (1963) are closer to David Lynch or the “strange stories” of Robert Aickman, the latter an author that Gorey illustrated on several occasions. Dery emphasises how Gorey’s love of silent cinema contributed to The West Wing and other pieces, especially the serials of the Surrealists’ favourite filmmaker, Louis Feuillade.

Continue reading “Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey”

Saki: The Improper Stories of HH Munro


I thought I’d written about this some time ago but it appears not so the present post can serve as a way to honour the talents of the late Fenella Fielding. The obituaries this week have inevitably emphasised her roles in the Carry On films, a series of alleged comedies that I’ve never liked, and which weren’t much liked by several of the actors who appeared in them. Fenella Fielding did much more than this, of course, especially in the theatre, on radio and in television, including appearances such as the one here from a collection of adaptations of the peerless short stories of Hector Hugh Munro, better known as Saki. Granada TV made a whole series of these in 1962, broadcasting this anthology in 1985 following the death of producer Philip Mackie. Fenella appears in the second story, A Holiday Task, as the forgetful Mary Drakmanton, and she fits so well with into Saki’s world that I really wish I’d suggested to my colleagues at Savoy Books a reading or two by Fenella from Saki. She enjoyed reading Colette for Savoy, and chose the selections herself, one of which concerned Colette’s homosexual friends. Given this, I can imagine Fenella teasing out some of the sly gay humour that runs like a scarlet thread through Saki’s Clovis stories.

The other pieces in this Granada collection are The Stampeding of Lady Bastable, The Way to the Dairy, Sredni Vashtar and A Defensive Diamond. The story editor was Gerald Savory who later did such an excellent job adapting Dracula for the BBC.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Fenella Fielding reads Colette