16 April 2021

THE ROCKET THAT BOMBED

Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon. Don Sharp, director. Studiocanal 2021.

Originally released in 1967, this is a new restoration of Jules Verne’s Rocket to the Moon. Taking enormous liberties with Verne’s original 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, it is set in Victorian England, where a series of scenes of British efforts at pushing the frontiers of science are shown to be comically incompetent.

At a lecture Professor Siegfried Von Bulow (Gert Frobe) outlines his plans to fire a projectile to the Moon from a huge cannon using a new type of explosive he has invented. At the lecture is showman Phineas T. Barnum (Burl Ives) who has arrived in Britain, with Tom Thumb (Jimmy Clitheroe), from the USA after his ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ has burnt down.

A committee is put together with Bulow producing the propellent for doddery Sir Charles Dilworthy’s (Lionel Jefferies) space capsule. Tom Thumb is ‘volunteered’ to be the Neil Armstrong of his age, and Harry Washington-Smythe, played by the expert on depicting shady characters, Terry Thomas, is assigned as the treasurer.

As might be expected things do not go smoothly. When it is discovered Dilworthy’s design does not include a return journey and the funds have been siphoned off by Smythe, an alternative project is put together.

In their attempt to sabotage the launch of the rocket, Dilworthy and Smythe, accidentally end up being fired to the Moon. As with the rest of the film’s inventions this goes disastrously wrong and they end up pulling their crashed spacecraft along a country road. As they march at the head of a gang of slaves, they argue whether they are in Russia or on the Moon. Perhaps this could be a warning that if we do not take space travel seriously this how we might all end up, but that is too profound a thought for something that can only deliver a few gentle laughs.

It was meant to be a gag-filled adventure, capitalising on the success of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Great Race (1965) and Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines but despite the strong cast it failed at the box office. This is probably because the story is slow moving (a bloated running time of 119 minutes) and episodic, without much space adventure.

Much of its failure, besides the muddled script, is that it depended on multi-national investors who had different audiences and expectations. This is made clear by the interviews with film historian Matthew Sweet and film critic Kim Newman that are included as DVD extras.

In the end, a historical footnote that tried to hitch a ride on the soaring interest in space exploration, but dithered and crashed like its own film characters. -- Nigel Watson

11 April 2021

PRE-HAUNTED AND RE-HAUNTED

Merlin Coverley. Hauntology, Ghosts of Future Pasts, Oldcastle Books, 2020.


Hauntology, Ghosts of Future Pasts is a book about hauntings, or more precisely the idea of haunting, and why, since the publication in 1848 of Marx and Engel’s The Communist Manifesto, we, meaning modern English society, have been pre-occupied with the supernatural. The term hauntology was first used by the philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1983 and describes, according to Merlin Coverley, “the ways in which the past returns to haunt the present.”

Coverley’s remit for Hauntology is a wide one: ranging from not only Marxism but the ghostly fiction of Charles Dickens, M.R.James and Arthur Machen; the experiments with time conducted by J.W.Dunne spilling over into the screenwriting of Nigel Kneale and the fiction of Alan Garner and J.G.Ballard; concluding with the work of W.G.Sebald and how these ghosts of futures past impacted strongly on the folk horror culture of the 1970’s to shape our view of British capitalism.

Along with Marx comes the shadow of Freud (mostly his essay, The Uncanny) looming over a haunted landscape that predicted our present society stuck in its attempt at liberal social progress. For it’s haunted by images (true or false) of past achievements which now exert a regressive nostalgia. They pull at us because we once embraced an idealistic hope that you could change the world for the better. But this has proved not to be so.

‘The closer the real possibility of liberating the individual from the constraints once justified by scarcity and immaturity, the greater the need for maintaining and streamlining these constraints lest the established order of dominion dissolve. Capitalism has to protect itself against the spectre of a world which could be free.’

That was Herbert Marcuse in 1955 who inspired the radical counter culture of the 1960’s: a movement that changed the cultural surface of the world but failed to remove the political structures of the status quo. So are we now haunted by our failures, near success and achievements? Do we have too much cultural inertia to make positive social change possible? And even if we could is it too late in the day?

"If as a science fiction writer, you ask me to make a prediction about the future, I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring...The future is going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul" J. G. Ballard interview in Extreme Metaphors (1982)




The most compelling sections of Coverley’s Hauntology deal with fictional engagement. Nigel Kneale was one of the few TV/film writers to blend scientific ideas in a supernatural setting. His 1972 BBC play The Stone Tape is an exemplary re-working of the ghost story and the archaeology of ghostly powers.

A ghost from the 1830’s proves to be merely the tip of an iceberg, for it uncovers traumas embedded in a malignant and deeper past. Like Kneale’s Quatermass the conceit of ancient forces is Lovecraftian. Coverley agues that what Kneale, and other writers, introduce us to are fresh concepts of time developed by J. W. Dunne. Other time-haunted writers are Alan Garner and Susan Cooper who are fascinated by inner time, the repetition of our lives and déjà vu (Cooper’s biography of J. B. Priestly is relevantly cited). Maybe its possible to explore the past and act more wisely in the future? However returning to J. G. Ballard we are possibly haunted by the pessimistic thought that we cannot experience anything as truly new again.

‘Everything has been condensed into a kind of high-pressure present where it’s almost impossible to visualise anything new happening; it’s impossible to think in terms of the day after tomorrow’  J.G.Ballard on The Atrocity Exhibition in Extreme Metaphors (1982)

The weakest part of Hauntology is Part 3, 'Ghosts of Future Pasts' with its attempt to provide a political solution to our haunted consciousness. I qualify weakness to infer that there aren’t alternatives only possibilities to consider.

Here Mark Fisher (another hauntologist) discusses how neo-liberalism has been responsible for destroying the spectre contained in Marcuse’s thought of a “world which could be free.” Fisher’s Acid Communism analyses the stasis of our society and how it can be challenged. The time we ought to re-consider (as it presently haunts our popular culture) is Britain in the 1970’s. The media consensus for the seventies is of a negative decade of unemployment, strikes and economic difficulties. However Coverley soberly reminds us that the Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP) calculated that the best year in Britain since 1950 was 1976. (Throughout Hauntology Coverley is scrupulous in providing excellent footnotes and maintains a strong critical position). It’s also a credit to this book that Coverley can draw upon the folk horror culture revival of the 1970’s to bolster his argument to provide a possible way out of our current (not yet post neo-liberal) impasse.

Yet what left me unconvinced, because it’s inadequately explained, is why the term ‘Hauntology’ is only seen as a phenomenon of English society and not other countries? Does our long and continuing sense of loss of Empire, inequality, Brexit et al, make the UK a unique case of a country haunted by other lost possible futures of social betterment?

Still any book that can take in so much eclectic material to explore what might have been and what might still be possible to achieve, given our haunted mental state, has to be applauded. Hauntology, Ghost’s of Futures Past is a distinctive and challenging read.  -- Alan Price.

6 April 2021

INTIMATE RELATIONS

David J. Halperin. Intimate Alien; The Hidden Story of UFOs. Stanford University Press, 2020.

David Halperin is a true ufologist. Unlike many academics who have dipped a toe into the cold water of ufology, he has done his time deep down in the ‘gutter roots’ of the subject, as Peter Rogerson once so eloquently described it. His first chapter, ‘Confessions of a Teenage Ufologist’ tracks a ufologocal career progression that will be familiar to many of his, and Magonia’s, readers. 
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29 March 2021

GREY MATTER

Timothy Green Beckley and Sean Casteel (editors) Alien Lives Matter: It’s OK to be Grey. Inner Light/Global Communications, 2021.

This time Tim and Sean collect reports and stories that take a two-pronged attack on the biggest issues in ufology. The major part of the book is dedicated to hostilities between humanity and aliens and underlines the point that throughout history being Grey has not been OK. 
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14 March 2021

VEILS AND DREAMS

James Machin (editor), Faunas: The Decorative Imagination of Arthur Machen. Strange Attractor Press, 2020.


We’re powerfully aware of Arthur Machen (1863-1947) as the author of some of the finest horror fiction of the 1890’s: weird, wonderful and decadent works both lyrical and mystical. The Great God Pan, The Novel of the Black Seal, The Novel of the White Powder, The Inmost Light, The Hill of Dreams and Machen’s masterpiece, The White People – a long story that ranks, for me, with the finest in English literature; its partly stream of consciousness narrative being remarkably effective, though very different from James Joyce or Virginia Woolf.
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9 March 2021

THE UPS AND DOWNS OF LIFE

Richard Panek. The Trouble With Gravity. Mariner Books 2020.


The book begins by exploring ancient history regarding gravity, and the author discusses how religious views and belief in gods were shaped by the existence of gravity and its prevalence on all living beings and all matter, and old beliefs and to what lies 'above'.
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1 March 2021

MOONDARK

David Tibet (selected) The Moons at Your Door. Strange Attractor Press, 2016.


I realise that I’ve written this piece in the wrong order. The Moons at Your Door is the earlier David Tibet anthology of thirty 'hallucinatory tales' coming straight after my review of David’s latest book There is a Graveyard that Dwells in Man (2020). But I think he and Strange Attractor Press would appreciate this as both books subvert the norm and reverse the order of things and reality.
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19 February 2021

WORDS FROM A GRAVEYARD

David Tibet (editor) There Is A Graveyard That Dwells In Man. Strange Attractor Press, 2020.


Before I discuss the pleasures to be found in David Tibet’s anthology of strange fiction I’d like to highlight this book as a desirable artefact. Of course the production values of Strange Attractor Press are high – they consistently produce beautiful looking books. In the case of There is a Graveyard that Dwells in Man we find a striking collaboration between the husband and wife team of David Tibet and Ania Goszczynska.
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16 February 2021

SEARCHING FOR FELINE PHANTOMS

Karl P. N. Shuker. Mystery Cats of the World Revisited. Anomalist Books, 2020.


This book is described as a revision and update of the author’s earlier book, Mystery Cats of the World, published in 1989, but in many respects this volume is an entirely new work. In his introduction the author explains that in revising the content, he has concentrated primarily on the wealth of new reports and information that has come from Africa, Asian and South America, where there have been many reports of entirely new feline cryptids. 
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5 February 2021

ROSWELL, THE FIRST WITNESS

Roswell: The First Witness’ A six-part series starting on Sky History on Tuesday 9th February at 9pm. All episodes will be available on the Sky History app.

Throughout February the Sky History channel in the UK is running a ‘Mystery Season.’ This includes series on ‘Hunting Hitler: The Final Chapter,’ ‘World’s Greatest Treasure Mysteries,’ ‘Strangest Things,’ ‘The Best of Monster Quest’ and ‘ ‘Roswell: The First Witness.’
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