Friday, January 1, 2016

Benighted, by J.B. Priestley

"It's our flesh, Pendleton told himself, the jellied stuff that rots so easily, which quivers and creeps, goes goosey with fright; but our bones stand up and don't give a damn."
-- from Benighted, p. 16

"It was only yourself that pushed you over the edge, where the horrors began."
-- p. 30

I am wildly excited about this book: it's one those I want to hand out to everyone in the world and tell them to read it. This is absolutely first class whistling past the graveyard! So bear with me if I start to gush.

Benighted (1927) is most famous  today as the source of James Whale's famous thriller/comedy, The Old Dark House, a movie that's startling for those of us who only knew Gloria Stuart from Titanic. It's one thing that she was gorgeous, but another that she was outright sexy as the representative of then-modern Jazz Age mores.

The film was remarkably faithful to the novel, apart from a few major divergences in the plot. A married couple, the Wavertons, who have some obscure distance between them, leave a house party with a friend of the husband's (Penderel), a hard-drinking fellow full of jovial black humor, who doesn't seem to have gotten over the war. Caught in a raging storm, with roads flooding all around them, they see a light over at the Femm place (the introduction in the beautiful Valancourt press edition points out that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is probably the most familiar work in this particular genre to current readers). They take shelter with the unfriendly inhabitants, and their troubles really begin.

Joined by the also stranded Sir William, a blustering baronet, and Gladys, a "week-ending chorus girl" (44), they wait out the night by the fire, playing the game Truth -- "the very existence" of which "is an awful commentary on society" (49). (Literary note: the book that Gladys took her stage name from, The Expensive Miss Du Cane, is a real book, written by Sarah Macnaughton in 1907, and currently available in some dodgy reprints). This opens them up to reveal things about their lives, adding insightful psychological levels about human nature and the feeling between the wars. At the same time, the Gothic elements of the spooky house, with its disturbed inhabitants and mysteriously locked rooms, close around them, reminding them that, as Penderel earlier responded to the promise of a place that's "safe and there's a roof and a fire": "Nothing's safe" (19). So much so that two separate characters refer to the storm as being like the end of the world.

The combination of Gothic ambiance with the existential aftermath of the First World War isn't something that's been explored often enough for my taste, and I'm delighted that we have Benighted to hit that mark. Growing up so much after the fact, it never occurred to me how much the Roaring '20s, with its loosening of sexual and social inhibitions and notoriously hard-partying ways, may have been a reaction to the devastation of the war, with the attendant knowledge of chaos and darkness underlying the seemingly civilized world. "Until at last you begin to feel that all the safe and clean and sane things have gone forever" (142).

At the same time, we see how the superficial elements of society, the niceties, are used to bolster people up against the darkness, and keep it at bay, giving them something familiar to cling to. A woman like Margaret Waverton may do her hair and makeup, even in a crisis, partly out of ingrained vanity, but also because it helps her feel in control of something, in order to face her fears. Which is a not unuseful insight. The novel contains people clinging to conventions, and ones knocking against them, but those are both understandable responses, and they all have to face the existential darkness and the horror of life.

It's not just its own time that Benighted enlightens, either, but has plenty that's applicable to our own. Philip Waverton, identifies "the fly in the ointment" of life as the fact that "If you let things go at all, disaster comes" (50). But if you're working and worrying to prevent the disasters, there's little room left for anything else. In this self-conscious age, life has become "so careful, so ordered, has become so conscious, asks for so much planning and safeguarding, that we never really arrive at any real enjoyment or ease, to say nothing of sheer rapture" (50). He should have seen life in the Internet age!

Which makes this sound pretty grim, but it's also very witty, which had to have attracted James Whale. Told that gin will make him melancholy, Penderel agrees "Gin is saddening ... but not so saddening as no gin" (22). Asked why he doesn't wear a watch, he says that if he needs to know the time, "there's always somebody ready to tell me. Some people never seem to think about anything else" (65). And he describes the women of the time who are "very long and slender or a kind of boy" as "these death's head and crossbones women you see everywhere now" (104). Come to think of it, Penderel is really a stand-out character, who, "even when you're saying how miserable you are, you seem to be enjoying yourself a lot more than most people are when they think they're really happy for once" (108).

It's also surprisingly romantic, with love still "a glimpse of sunrise in a lost world" (126), and full of warmth and humanity, despite the existential despair. I'm thrilled to see that other of Priestley's novels are also back in print, and can't wait to read more!

Priestely, J. B. Benighted. Kansas City: Valancourt Books, 2013.

No comments:

Post a Comment