Body Snatchers

I warn you that what you’re starting to read is full of loose ends and unanswered questions. It will not be neatly tied up at the end, everything resolved and satisfactorily explained. Not by me it won’t, anyway. Because I can’t say I really know exactly what happened, or why, or just how it began, how it ended, or if it has ended; and I’ve been right in the thick of it.

 

The 1970s film The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was my introduction to the Body Snatcher stories.

Alien plant spores drift to earth and start to replicate, and replace, the (mostly human) life it encounters. Everything about the resulting “people” remains the same, apart from a lack of genuine emotion. The memories are retained, as are all physical features, so the invaders are unnoticed until it’s too late.

After seeing the 70s film, I found there had been an earlier version released around 20 years previously. The older version had been slightly sanitised, originally having a much darker conclusion. The changes made gave it a more hopeful conclusion, but in my opinion weakened the film. The 70s film addressed that weakness, and even contained a scene referencing the original conclusion of the earlier film.
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(B & W still from 1950’s film. Colour still from 1970s)

I know of two other variations of the story on film to date.

While the 50s film was located in small town America, and the 70s film in San Francisco, the 1993 film Body Snatchers is mostly set around a US military base, while the The Invasion from 2007 is located in Washington DC.

The more recent of the films takes greater liberties with the story, and in my opinion is much weaker for doing so – with a very disappointing conclusion that takes the attempted hopeful ending of the 50s film into deeper saccharine sweetness territory.

9780575085312.jpgThe initial inspiration behind these films is the 1955 novel Body Snatchers by Jack Finney.

Finney’s story is followed quite faithfully through the early party of the original film version.

A small town doctor is contacted by his High School love interest when a friend starts to claim that her uncle is no longer her uncle.

This claim is only the first of many, as town’s people increasingly suffer from what is assumed to be a kind of collective delusion.

That assumption is overturned when a “body” is discovered in a friend’s home – a body that seems not to be fully featured, lacking finger prints and other indications of individual physical character. Then the body starts to accumulate detail when the friend falls asleep, somehow the “body” is starting to replicate the sleeping man, with the intended outcome of replacing him.

The assumed mass delusion is found to be something much more serious, with townsfolk literally being replaced by people who are no longer themselves: an uncle who is no longer the uncle, a wife who is no longer the wife her husband had known. What was a localised, puzzling psychological mystery is found to be a potential threat to life throughout the world.

Some media commentators have projected the political angst of various eras into the book and film versions of the stories. Originally written in the early cold war years, the threat of the time was a passionless red invasion of communist infiltrators, which along with the threat of nuclear annihilation, fuelled countless monster movies.

Maybe, ironically, the perceived threat could also be reversed with the affects of McCarthyism breeding suspicion, not only of “reds under the bed”, but of those in authority with the power to determine who was “red” and who was not.

It’s a scenario that can fit any perceived threat to the familiar, where society can seem to be moving towards apparently uncaring, unfeeling change – where a person no longer feels secure to be themselves, feeling under pressure to conform to a different, newly introduced societal paradigm.

 

In “Defense” of Crime Fiction

A one time friend of mine has taken exception to my reading of crime fiction. He is a professing Christian with some extreme theological views that would be rejected by the majority of Christian believers, including myself.

But added to his “theological” issues he has been particularly insistent about the evils of crime fiction and critical of my reading of “death and murder”.
He also objected to me maintaining a “reading list”, claiming I am:

” de facto recommending appalling books to Christians and shd be stopped. [my] Books Read list is available to the public. It shdn’t be…”

Clearly he has read ever single book on my Books Read list and knows without doubt how appalling all of those books are. But as for the claim that I’m recommending any of those books to Christians… it’s very rarely that I recommend any book to anyone, Christian or otherwise.

Ironically, this man introduced me to a Christian author of crime novels, an author his wife had been reading.
I read one of that author’s books and found aspects of it more disturbing than the majority of those “death and murder” books that he condemns; with its Christian good-guys resorting to shooting their criminal opponents on several occasions (it’s American of course).

But overlooking the 100s of non-crime books on my reading list, as well as the many non-fiction titles about a variety of topics, what about the “death and murder” books he finds disturbing?

While crime books mostly have a murder (or murders) as the ignition point of their story, few of them dwell on death. The stories are about the living, those attempting to resolve the crime, or those left to make sense of the life changing loss of a loved one. They are occasionally about the perpetrator, who in most books I’ve read haven’t been evil blood-thirsty psychopaths (although there have been a couple of exceptions out of the many I’ve read). The guilty parties are often everyday people who have committed an out of character act of violence upon the victim.

Most of the authors I’ve read don’t write explicit descriptions of violence or killing, with murders mostly happening beyond the page. There have been exceptions, sometimes gratuitous exceptions, but those are the minority, and aren’t the kind of books I choose to read – although with an unfamiliar author a book has to be read before its nature is discovered.

The majority of the crime fiction I’ve chosen to read, the way I’ve narrowed the field in a very wide genre, has been because of two main factors: geographical and temporal settings. I suppose both have a relationship to nostalgia. The majority of my chosen authors set their books around Derbyshire or neighbouring counties – where I lived during my pre-teen years. Others relate to the mid-1960s – 1970s, the period of my childhood and adolescence. They often weave landscape and time-scape with vaguely familiar references to news events of their time, or to places, and types of people, I thought I’d forgotten about – stirring memories.

Despite the claims of that one time friend, the average crime novel has nowhere near the amount of death and murder as there was in so many of the accounts of WWI and WWII that I was reading a year or two ago; books he was all to happy for me to read, even encouraging me with links to associated articles.

A Map of Days, by Ransom Riggs

9780735231498.jpgThis is the fourth of Riggs’ books about Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, and the first in a new story series.

Peculiars are people with extraordinary abilities, who in other story genres would be portrayed as superheroes.

Jacob Portman has recently discovered his own “peculiar” abilities and with a group of other peculiars, travelling though time and place, helped put an end to an existential threat to their kind.

He has now returned home, and is rescued from an attempt to commit him to a psych facility by the unexpected appearance of Miss Peregrine and her peculiar wards.

In this book Jacob begins to learn more about the grandfather whose death led him to find Miss Peregrine and sets out to follow in his footsteps, seeking out and rescuing isolated peculiars across America. He gradually finds himself out of his depth, potentially compromising fragile treaties between various peculiar clans.

Riggs’ first book was an attention getter from the beginning, attested by the fact that Gloria read it before I did – and she is not a keen reader, and will only stick with something if it is immediately (and continues to be) compelling from the first page or two.

In my opinion there is a significant pacing problem with this book. I know it would be a waste of time for Gloria to start it.
It has a very slow build up as it moves from the events of the past books into a new situation and new challenges. I was about three quarters into the book before I felt it picking up any momentum, and then it began to move from one breathless crisis to another.

Riggs continues a practice that was quite effective in his first book. He is a collector of old photographs, and he was able to cleverly weave some of his collection into the book, illustrating some of the peculiar characters, and at times using others to develop settings and plot points.

In the following books, and particularly in this one, I started to find the photo use becoming forced, intrusive and increasingly gratuitous.

Throughout A Map of Days I felt that I probably wouldn’t be interested enough to continue with the series after this one – the next installment is due early next year – and it was only in the last chapter or two that I started to feel interested enough to want to see what happens next. By then it became obvious I was heading for a cliffhanger ending to be resolved/continued in that next book. At this stage I’m still not sure whether I’d want to continue the journey.

No Turning Back, Joanne Lees

930696.jpgI wasn’t sure about this book.

I picked it up when I bought two others about the disappearance of Peter Falconio, but had second thoughts and put it back on the shelf.

Two weeks later and it was still there, so I decided to buy it.
I’m glad I did.

To others Falconio’s presumed murder, and the attempted abduction of Joanne Lees were merely a story to be told or a case to be solved.
To Joanne Lees it was personal experience. It was her life as she would never wish it to be.

This book gives a totally different perspective on the events surrounding Falconio’s disappearance, and what Lees experienced afterwards as she had to cope with the probable murder of her boyfriend, as well as the threat she faced from the assailant.
She then struggled to cope with media attention and the unhelpfulness of police, who seemed to have no idea of what to do with her, and apart from one or two exceptions, gave her no support as a victim.

She was also shocked to find herself under suspicion, openly in the press but more discreetly by some of the police.

I’ve read a lot of negative things about this book, but after reading it for myself I can say that the negative reaction is completely unfounded. I have to wonder what motivated those hostile reviews.

Lees’ account is a simple, unembellished telling of her experiences, from the early days of her travels with Falconio, through to the result of the court case where Bradley Murdoch was found guilty of Falconio’s murder.

Others have expressed doubts about Murdoch’s guilt, but Lees is certain that he was the one who killed her boyfriend and from whom she was able to escape beside a Northern Territory highway at night. I suppose only Murdoch can know for sure whether her memory and certainty are valid.

And Then the Darkness by Sue Williams

This is the second book I’ve read about the disappearance (and presumed murder) of English backpacker Peter Falconio.
I bought it at the same time that I picked up Dead Centre (see previous post)

darknessIt didn’t take long to know the direction this book would take. It loudly broadcast its lack of objectivity in the second chapter, saying of the man who was ultimately convicted of murdering Peter Falconio:

“Bradley John Murdoch was a mistake from the moment of conception”.

It’s a far different kind of book from the one written by Robin Bowles.

Bowles wrote from her own experience, reporting what others told her, and what she personally saw and heard. Although her own assumptions clearly colour how she recounts those experiences and her observations.

In the earlier part of her book Williams writes more in the style of a novel, from the viewpoint of an all seeing, all knowing narrator. While she most likely based her work on a lot of research, I find that kind of narrative voice can give a story a sense of authenticity and authority they possibly don’t deserve. A lot of authorial assumptions can be presented with the appearance of being fact rather than an imaginative interpretation of events and experiences.

For me, what is gained in “readability” is lost in trustworthiness, and my motivation to keep reading wasn’t there, despite the “easy-to-read” style. If I wanted crime fiction I have more than enough unread books of that genre on my shelves. I read this one hoping to get a more FACTUAL perspective.

The central event of the case, in which Falconio disappeared and Lees escaped abduction, is described partly from the point of view of the perpetrator, getting into his head. Considering the person convicted of being that perpetrator insists on his innocence, Williams clearly has not based that perpetrator’s point of view on interviews with the man who was actually there committing the crime. She has clearly made it up.

After this imagining of events, Williams does move on to reporting known events: from the police investigation through to the ultimate conviction of Bradley Murdoch. That latter part of the book seemed more objective than the earlier half, but for me the damage had already been done.

Dead Centre by Robin Bowles

dead-centreI’ve had a couple of Robin Bowles books for a while, but this is the first I’ve read. I’m not sure why I haven’t started any of the others yet, but this one gives me clear encouragement to do so.

The first book of hers that I bought was Death on the Derwent, about the disappearance of Bob Chappell and the subsequent conviction of his partner, Sue Neill-Fraser for his murder.

When I bought it I’d only recently finished Colin McLaren’s book Southern Justice, and the TV documentary Undercurrent about the same case, so I probably needed a break from it before starting Bowles’ book on the same subject.

I found this book on the weekend while I was looking for one about the Belanglo Forest “backpacker murders”. I found the book I was looking for, and for some reason I decided to get this one too. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad that I did.

It’s a book that I was reluctant to put down, even though my work day sadly made that necessary.

Bowle’s account is a well paced, well constructed journey through her research and investigation into the disappearance of Peter Falconio and the attempted abduction of his girlfriend Joanne Lees.

She interviewed most of the major players in the investigation as well as a number of meetings with Bradley Murdoch, the man who stood trial and was eventually convicted of Falconio’s murder, visiting him in jail while he was awaiting trial.

The official story is that Lees and Falconio were driving between Alice Springs and Darwin. According to Lees their trip was interrupted when the driver of a white 4WD truck pulled alongside and warned them about a problem with their Kombi van.

While Falconio was checking their vehicle, Lees heard a loud bang and was then confronted by a man with a handgun beside her. She was bound and bundled into the man’s truck, but somehow managed to escape and hide in the scrub alongside the road.

Falconio has never been seen since.

There are many inconsistencies in that official story. These are addressed in Bowles’ book. One that stands out to me is that Lees described her attacker as a man of average height and build, with longish hair.

Bradley Murdoch, the man eventually found guilty of the murder of Falconio and the attempted kidnapping of Lees, is six feet five tall (approx. 195cm) who always had closely cropped hair.

The assailant also reportedly had a blue healer dog as a companion – Murdoch’s had a dalmatian, a dog of distinctly  different appearance.

healer.jpg

Blue Healer

dalmatian

Dalmatian

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although Lees was reportedly pushed into the truck along side the assailant’s dog, no trace of dog hair was found on her clothing, despite both healers and dalmatians being notorious hair shedders.

Lees also claimed to have escaped by crawling through a gap in the truck seats, and out across the covered back tray, dropping from the rear of the truck onto the road. No trucks of the type described were found with that access from the cab to the rear tray.

These and other details in this book bring into question the official story, and left me in no doubt that Murdoch is probably in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

A podcast including interview with Robin Bowles about the case. [The presenters of this podcast include his warning: “please be advised this episode contains graphic content”].

I have another two books about this case and will be interested to see how two different authors approach this case.

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One minor quibble (or puzzle) – Bowles gives a story of the difficulty she had finding the Dymock’s bookshop in George Street Sydney, where Lees had worked prior to the journey she took through Central Australia with Peter Falconio.

I was very familiar with the shop. I was a frequent visitor to it when I lived and worked in Sydney, and it was in a very prominent central location, easy to find. And the description she gives of the shop after she eventually found it isn’t of the main Dymock’s store which had a wide display window and street level access to the main shop area.

Her description seems more like the Angus and Robertson book shop that used to be in the Pitt Street mall, parallel to George Street. The A & R Shop had a street level display window, but the shop itself was accessed from the mall via descending stairs.

I had also been a frequent visitor to A & R during the late 90s.

I have vague recollection of a secondary Dymocks closer to Circular Quay, but can’t remember whether that one was in George Street, but I think that one was also a street level store, not one accessed by stairs.

Genre Eclectica

“I beg your forgiveness for this unexpected change to the evening’s proceedings. but we find ourselves confronted with the urgent need to conduct an impromptu séance for reasons of national security.”

feaster.jpgThe Feaster From the Stars by Alan K. Baker is a strange blend of multiple genres.

It is a science fiction/  horror/ mythic/ Faerie/ occult/ crime story set in a Victorian era, where new technologies have been borrowed from alien civilisations.

It’s a Victorian England, compatible with Wells’ War of the Worlds, where both Mars and Venus are inhabited, and their citizens have made their mark on earth.

Many Victorian “interests” collide within the book, which seems to be written in, and inspired by, the  style of the macabre literature of that time.

I first came across this book via an ad for The Martian Ambassador, another novel by Baker. When I followed that book up with local book sellers, I saw this one also on sale, for around half price.
I ordered both and this one was delivered first. They are parts of a “Blackwood and Harrington” series.

After starting to read this book, I realised it was the more recent of the two, with several semi-spoilers for the other book being revealed throughout this story.

Thomas Blackwood, Special Investigator from Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Clandestine Affairs, is sent to investigate strange events in the London Underground railway, assisted by Lady Sophia Harrington, secretary of the Society for Psychical Research and Detective Gerhard de Chardin from the Metropolitan Templar Police.

Rail workers report an increase in ghostly activity throughout the rail tunnels, and a train driver has an encounter that leaves his mind broken, and he is committed to the Bethlem Hospital. The only clue to what he experienced is his utterance of the word “Carcosa”.

Blackwood recalls this is the name of a mythical place in literature. A place that the investigators discover is actually a planet in a distant star system.

A link between the underground events is made to Carcosa, from which there is an approaching, imminent danger to the earth .

Aided by psychics. mediums and occult scholars, as well as Faery royalty, the investigators have the challenge of saving earth and countless other civilisations from a powerfully destructive entity known as The King in Yellow.

I thought the blending of science fiction and crime investigation, with a dash of ghostliness would make a compelling story. However, while the book was relatively easy to get through, I found too many genres swirled together with almost every kind of supernatural character imaginable (aliens, faeries, ghosts, angels…) made for an overall, disappointing reading experience.

A third story in the series was also published but it seems to be very hard to obtain. It must be out of print. Second hand copies are available however they aren’t cheap, but after reading this one, I wouldn’t be interested in it anyway.

This book and the one before it (The Martian Ambassador – which is still on order) will be more than enough for me.