Thursday, August 4, 2016

Relatively Strange Things

Stranger Things is on my TV and it's totally creepy.

Last year, I wrote an essay on Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell for Vice, but it ended up never getting published. I thought The Gentleman was nicely creepy, and enjoyed the openings of The Whispers and Wayward Pines - both of which aimed at creepy, but missed. In honor of Stranger Things, which I think hits squarely on the creepy mark, here's the unpublished and unedited essay. 

Remember: Faeries eat people.

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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Review
Faeries are mean bastards. Abandon the Disney-fueled image of Tinkerbell and other tiny creatures twitting about the forest.  Look past the inscrutable badass battle elves of Lord of the Rings or the wispy sexy fae of too much fantasy art. In folklore, faeries eat people.

Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), one of the two magicians at the heart of the new BBC show Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, has no illusions about the cruelty of faeries and danger of bargaining with them. And yet, at the end of the first episode, he decides that the risk of summoning a faerie lord, The Gentleman (Marc Warren), is worth the potential reward. Norrell is wrong.  The Gentleman’s influence slowly corrupts the lives of all the people at the heart of this drama, causing suffering and death wherever he goes, binding the mouths of his victims with spells so they cannot reveal his cruel machinations.

The show renders the  award-winning novel by Susanna Clarke as faithfully as possible given the challenge of compressing a long novel into 7 hours.  It takes place in an England during the Napoleonic wars. Wellington is in Portugal. The fleet blockades the channel. The gentry mostly care about parties and fashion.  Everyone knows that magic is real, but as the show opens, we’re informed that no one has performed magic in England for over three centuries. Magicians are semi-upper-class gentlemen, with a handful of books, gathering in learned societies featuring the reading of papers, debate, and lots of liquor.

Enter Mr. Norrell. He’s spent his life in the north of England, where once the legendary Raven King practiced magic, studying and executing practical magic. He has a huge library, and a servant, Childermass, always willing to help him get more books. Norrell brings the statues of York Cathedral to life to prove his ability, then heads for London to restore English magic and make it respectable. Norrell is brilliant but unappealing, able but cowardly, and covetous of magical knowledge. In the meantime, another magician has arrived in London. Unlike Norrell, Jonathan Strange is dashing, performs flamboyant acts of magic, and doesn’t really know how it all works.  The two magicians start as master and apprentice, but their relationship sours, even as the Gentleman starts to wreak creepy havoc with the people in the magicians’ orbit.

In the meantime, London society and the Napoleonic wars keep churning.  One of the interesting features of the show is the lack of impact that the addition of magic has to the history, social structure, or the politics of the era. The setting maintains the feel of a good BBC historical drama, even as a high-fantasy plot takes place among the characters.  Magic is not hidden in a secret society that co-exists with mainstream society (Harry Potter, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series), nor does the presence of a fantasy story force re-writes of history (such as in the Temeraire series, a Napoleonic-war drama with dragons, in which history goes radically askew).

In part, the show’s ability to maintain history emerges from the power of social norms. Norrell doesn’t just want to restore English magic, but to make it “respectable.” Strange, likewise, is beholden to the standards of his class. At one point, on campaign in Portugal, Lord Wellington asks Strange just how magic might help him, saying, “Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Strange ponders, then replies, “I suppose a magician might, but a gentleman never could.” And he doesn’t. Magic aids the army, but it’s given no higher status than any other military tool. Indeed, after Strange fails a task, Wellington notes, “I regularly demand the impossible of my engineers, my generals, my officers. I see no reason to make an exception in your case.” Modern English magic is meant to be respectable and normal; when older magics awake, however, trouble beckons.

Back in London, the Gentleman – a prime example of that older magic – has taken an interest in Strange’s wife, Arabella (Charlotte Riley), and a freed slave and servant named Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare).  Norrell had summoned the faerie  to resurrect the wife of Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West), a rising politician. Lady Pole (Alice Englert) had died, perhaps of consumption, but that proved no obstacle to this faerie lord. The problem is the price he required for his services, a price that Lady Pole paid and Norrell tries to conceal. Things go downhill from there.

The show is creepy, rather than horror, mystery, or fantasy. Adam Kotsko, Assistant Professor of Humanities at Shimer College and author of Creepiness, defines creepy as, “the experience of an excessive, asymmetrical demand — someone is demanding something of us that we cannot and do not want to reciprocate.”  No one wishes to fulfill the Gentleman’s demands, but he compels them with visions, magic, and persuasion.  He demands dances from Lady Pole in his palace of Lost Hope, orders a shoe-shines from Stephen Black, and creeps ever so close to Arabella Strange.

Two other new shows likewise mine the creepy space between the genres of horror and fantasy. In Wayward Pines, FBI agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillon) finds himself trapped in a strange town, controlled by forces he doesn’t understand, and held accountable to strict rules. Do Not Discuss Your Life Before. Do Not Discuss the Past. Don’t try to leave. In The Whispers, based on a Ray Bradbury story “Zero Hour,” children around the world start to play games with their imaginary friends. In one trailer, a macabre “You Are My Sunshine” (which I’ve always thought was kind of a stalker song anyway) plays in the background, as glassy-eyed little girls talk to empty spaces and make disturbing promises. Later, at least some of them are going to kill their parents. 

Both of these shows, like Strange & Norrell, present the subversion of norms in ways that lead to suffering and even death.  Wayward Pines offers all-American small-town paradise turned into a prison. The Whispers turns cute children into calm agents of extra-dimensional invasion. And in Strange & Norrell, the class-bound mannered society of 19th-century England provides a perfect setting for a hungry faerie to wreak havoc. These shows are not quite horror. Not standard mysteries. Not the usual run of fantasy or historical drama. They are all just off-center enough to be interesting. It’s going to be a hot, creepy, summer.

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