Friday, 29 January 2021

Ever hit the big screen without knowing it?


So, what do you do when you cheerfully boot up your PC in the morning and immediately see references to a new movie or TV series that sounds remarkably similar to your last novel or play or short story?

It’s happened to me at least three times now, once quite recently … so yes, that’s going to be the subject of today’s chit-chat.

Of course, when it comes to creating exciting fiction, good ideas are good ideas, and you can never assume that you’re the only person who hatches them. In fact, there are some subjects we’ve seen tackled again and again throughout the history of literature, and so, while we’re on the general subject today of familiar ideas, the book I’ll be reviewing this week is Giles Blunt’s extraordinarily chilling horror novel, COLD EYE.

The concept behind this one is familiar in all kinds of ways, but carried off with such aplomb that I was shaken to my core when I read it. Ill admit right now that this was the first novel I’ve read in quite a while that I was still thinking about, discomforted, several days later.

If you’re only here for the Giles Blunt review and discussion, no problem. As always, you’ll find it in the Thrillers, Chillers section at the lower end of today’s blogpost.

However, if you’re interested in discussing other stuff too, perhaps you might want to stick around a while at this end first, for …

Great Minds

Great minds think alike, or so they say. As I mentioned in my intro today, no one has a monopoly on cool ideas. Two completely different people can easily come up with something similar and each think they are the sole inventor of it. Yes, I’ve heard all that before, and it’s true … but that didn’t prevent me feeling royally miffed a couple of weeks ago when I first heard about upcoming Netflix movie, The Formula, which is set to star Robert De Niro and John Boyega.

Here’s the basic outline: a young Formula One star is forced to work as a getaway driver in order to protect his family.

And, just out of interest, here’s a key element of the outline to my crime novel of August last year, ONE EYE OPEN: a Formula One star sees his career flagging and so opts to work as a getaway driver in order to earn some quick money.

Now, okay … I’m not suggesting for one second that Netflix have taken inspiration from me. It’s almost certainly the case that no one in that august institution has ever even heard of Paul Finch and ONE EYE OPEN. Let’s be honest, it’s probably not so original an idea anyway. It’s highly likely that somewhere else in the world of fiction, perhaps long before my novel was published, a legitimately trained super-driver was compelled to put his skills to criminal use.

And that latter is possibly the most valid point of all. None of us really knows how original our ideas are. There’ve been millions of novels and screenplays created over the decades, and millions more that were never published or filmed. We can never know for sure whether or not our latest high concept piece is truly the ground-breaker we like to think.

But that doesn’t stop it being frustrating when this happens. As a friend said to me recently when I mentioned it: ‘Shame. That’s any potential film or TV deal gone.’ 

You would certainly think so, but the film or TV deal might never have come along anyway. It’s a blow you’ve just got to ride with. 

You’ve also got to be wary of egocentricity. Never assume that you are the only person this has happened to.

One of the worst examples I ever heard about was the 2005 Dreamworks film, The Island, which basically involves members of a mysterious enclosed community discovering that they are clones being used for organ harvesting, and subsequently seeking to escape. And yet, nine years earlier, in 1996, English novelist Michael Marshall Smith wrote the novel Spares, which focusses on the caretaker of a secret farm where cloned humans are being kept for spare parts.

The similarities between those two projects sound remarkable to me. And it’s all the more worrying when you hear that Smith’s novel was briefly optioned by Dreamworks in the late 1990s.

Smith chose not to take any kind of legal action, but I’d imagine that it rankled with him for years afterwards. One that certainly rankled with me, much more so than the apparent similarities between ONE EYE OPEN and The Formula concerned Dirty Work

This was the screenplay for a two-part television drama I wrote in the late 1990s, featuring a blue-collar Manchester police detective called Lucy Clayburn. Lucy comes from a poor background, her mother a depressed single parent, her younger brother a drug addict, all of which means that she is regarded with suspicion in her job. Even more so when she is co-opted onto a special unit investigating a series of brutal underworld murders and begins to suspect that they’ve been carried out by rogue police officers looking to cover up misdemeanours by their colleagues during earlier investigations.

At the time, a number of historical miscarriages of justice were being exposed in the UK and some police officers who’d misbehaved in the past were being publicly censured. So I thought it was very timely. Others seemed to agree, including an independent television producer I’d worked with before, who was keen to get it made.

For various complex reasons, it didn’t happen – and that’s a story all writers will be familiar with. Speculative work so rarely seems to pay off, but all you can do is take it on the chin and move on. However, not long afterwards, my producer friend contacted me to tell me how irritated he was that certain people he’d shown Dirty Work to appeared to have been strongly influenced by it. A new British police drama was by then in the works, the basic concept of which bore one or two similarities to my earlier script.

Was anyone actually involved in the new show who my producer mate had shown my original script to?

Yes.

Once again, I can’t sit here and assert that an idea was stolen. Because it most likely wasn’t. The similarities were small, though their appearance on television in a completely different property meant that I had to make some hefty changes to the Lucy Clayburn back-story when I was novelising her exploits in the 2010s.

But good grief, it does rankle

It’s important to remember that there’s no copyright on ideas. Because, as I say, people innocently come up with similar concepts, or, even if they don’t, they can’t always help being influenced by something else. An idea might have been put into the back of your mind by something that impressed you, and when it pops to the front again years later, you think it’s all your own.

You can’t always assume the worst. Even the great geniuses of the world have, unwittingly or otherwise, trespassed on other people’s territory. Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime, Romeo and Juliet, which premiered in 1597, tells much the same story as The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, which Arthur Brooke translated from the Italian original in 1562.

Even two of our most beloved entertainers, Morecambe and Wise, great originators of classic knockabout comedy, are perhaps best-remembered today for their breakfast-making stripper routine, which first aired in 1976. And yet Benny Hill, a lesser light in TV comedy in modern eyes, performed a very similar sketch, Breakfast Cha-Cha, circa 1968.

I think the most unlikely personal example I can come up with was when my short story Enemies at the Door was published in The Third Alternative in 1996. It focussed on a veteran of the Falklands War, who’d suffered a severe head-wound, and as he grows older, begins to detect hidden doors leading to backstage corridors connecting with various periods of his life, which have clearly been nothing more than scripted entertainment for an unknown audience. When he seeks to escape, he encounters violence.

Two years later, the Jim Carrey vehicle, The Truman Show, came out, in which an ordinary man discovers that his entire life is a TV show for the masses; he too tries to escape.

Am I saying the latter was in any way influenced by the former? No (for all the reasons I’ve already underlined, but also because The Truman Show was most likely inspired by Joseph Michael Straczynski’s 1988 episode of The Twilight Zone, Special Service, which was very similar in concept – and which just goes to show that I too, unknowingly at the time, had ventured a little bit into someone else’s idea).

But I won’t pretend that it didn’t still rankle.

 

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

 An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed (I’ll outline the plot first, and follow it with my opinions) … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.



by Giles Blunt (1989)

Outline

Thirty-something New York artist, Nicholas Hood, has it all. Married to a beautiful and sensitive wife, Susan, who also happens to be an acclaimed professional musician, he owns a comfortable Manhattan apartment and shares a spacious studio with his best friend, Leo Forstadt. His paintings sell reasonably well; not sufficiently to make him rich, but they are appreciated enough to occupy space in a nearby gallery, where they are regularly viewed by art-lovers and critics alike, which means that his name at least is known.

However, Nick Hood is not a happy man. Convinced that his work is worth more than he manages to earn from it, wondering if his chosen subject-matter – murder – is what puts the big buyers off, but determined to stick with this as it totally obsesses him, he waits impatiently for the day when his talent will be trumpeted from the rooftops.

Nothing about Hood is immediately attractive. He is cool and unaffectionate with his wife, he flirts continually with beautiful life model, Valerie Vale, he is unimpressed by Leo’s stolid approach to art, figuring that his friend will always be a journeyman painter because he has no real ambition, and he is belligerently jealous of the other artists he shares space with in the gallery, especially those who do well, certain that they have simply been lucky while he has not.

Hood’s attitude is even reflected in his style of work. It is remarked on by various characters in Cold Eye that he is too dispassionate about his controversial subject, displaying more interest in the architecture filling up the backgrounds than the personal tragedy playing out in the foreground (where someone is invariably being violently killed or committing suicide). But he peevishly dismisses such viewpoints. As far as Hood is concerned, he is a genius and it’s only a matter of time before others realise this – but when will his moment arrive?

Most creatives could probably identify with this yearning to be discovered. Many who produce art are often their own worst critics and may be irrationally in love with their output, thus failing to recognise its flaws. Nick Hood is one such. In fact, so narcissistic is he that when his work features in a high-profile exhibition, and the arts correspondent for the New York Times reviews every piece of work positively save those of Hood’s, which (out of kindness, in his view) he doesn’t mention at all, the young painter is almost driven out of his mind.

Drunk and despairing, he is on the verge of suicide when he encounters one Andre Bellisle, a stunted and disfigured dwarf who is also staggeringly wealthy. Bellisle claims to be an admirer of Hood’s work and makes the astonishing claim that if Hood will come under his wing, he can guarantee success. Hood has no idea what this means and at first is repulsed by the grotesque little man, but then Bellisle gives several demonstrations of his influence: getting Hood into the Rockefeller Centre Rainbow Room when it is closed; even more mysteriously, predicting the imminent death of a bar-room reveller, which duly happens; and then, in a display of power that really swings it, anonymously arranging for several of Hood’s pre-existing paintings to be sold to overseas collectors for outrageous sums, which catapults the struggling painter’s name into a much higher category.

In no doubt that his ship has come in, Hood puts himself in Bellisle’s charge. What follows, however, is a series of terrible incidents on the streets of New York, which somehow or other, Bellisle is able to predict, and which Hood is there to mentally photograph and thus recreate on canvas, creating some of the most astonishingly vivid and horrific paintings of his career. Fame and fortune follow, but of course it isn’t going to be that easy.

If Hood’s own personality changes (for the worse!) don’t indicate to him that something is unnatural and wrong about this arrangement, Andre Bellisle’s gradual physical transformation into an angel-like being ought to. And yet that doesn’t either, and Nick Hood is now on the fast-track to some truly terrifying events …

Review
The pros and cons of the Faustian pact is a common subtext in horror, but rarely have I seen it as effectively and chillingly investigated as in Cold Eye.

Remarkably, this was Canadian author Giles Blunt’s first book, so I must give him every kind of accolade for presenting me with a story that is easily one of the most disturbing I’ve ever read, and which finally reaches such a crescendo of horror that it kept me awake that night (genuinely – and I don’t make that claim lightly).

Blunt is probably better known these days for his superb John Cardinal series, which are hardcase crime thrillers, but in Cold Eye he started out with a stand-alone and unashamedly, almost from the word ‘go’, wove it with the supernatural. Whether or not this is a genre he intends to revisit in the future I have no idea, but I sincerely hope he does.

Not everything about the book is perfect. I found Nick and Susan’s relationship a trifle odd, Susan perhaps a bit too good to be true (and yet someone who’s judgement clearly lapsed badly when she chose the man in her life), while in the character of cop, Gary Lauzon, Blunt makes a big assumption that inner-city Homicide detectives would have the time to play cat-and-mouse games with unlikely suspects in deaths that might not even be suspicious. But it would be churlish to make too much of this. It’s all good fun, and Nick and Lauzon’s continued not-so-accidental meetings work well to raise both the tension and the stakes.

We’ve already touched on the flawed character that is Nick Hood – he’s much more antihero than hero – every one of his unlikeable traits ramping itself up as Bellisle’s baleful hold on him strengthens. But one thing I particularly liked about Cold Eye, and Nick Hood’s place in it, is the way his slide into wickedness happens with incremental slowness, neither he nor we really noticing it. To me, that’s a vivid and authentic depiction of the way human corruption works. There is an event late on in the book, which I won’t comment on in detail for fear of spoiling, except to remark that it really shocked me, I mean literally jolted me out of my seat … and yet when I sat back and thought about it, I realised that it shouldn’t have shocked me at all. Nick Hood has become so dangerously self-centred by this point that he’s lost all grasp of real life and the cost and consequence of not living it like a normal citizen.

This leads us to the other main villain of the piece, Andre Bellisle himself. Giles Blunt doesn’t spend too much time detailing this character other than in describing his astonishing physical changes. But that’s because he doesn’t really need to. It won’t be much of a spoiler if I point out that Bellisle is much more than an ordinary man. As I mentioned before, we all know the story of Faust, and have seen it done umpteen times, the demonic force at the heart of it coming in all shapes and sizes.

That said, Bellisle is an interesting example. His name isn’t hugely dissimilar to ‘Belial’, a demon-prince who in Milton’s Paradise Lost epitomises self-indulgence. And indeed, while much of Cold Eye runs like a contemporary thriller, its modern-day Manhattan setting and superficially mundane focus on the greed and potential ruthlessness of humans unhappy in their everyday lives, he could easily have been imported into it from a Gothic horror novel: the hunched and twisted dwarf with the raddled face, and yet who is cultured in his manners and speech and limitlessly wealthy and influential

A couple of reviewers have taken issue with this, arguing that Bellisle’s presence in Cold Eye is a little too on the nose. But not me. I found him the perfect complement this very grim tale of envy and ambition.

Cold Eye is a must-read for all fans of dark fiction. It was first published in 1989, which means that by now it may be flying under quite a few radars, but don’t let that stop you. It’ll chill you to the bone and punch you in the gut. So, don’t mess around. Read it. And weep.

Cold Eye has already been made into a movie once, the French film, Les Couleurs du Diable, in 1997, but it’s yet to hit the screen in English, So, as always, I’m being ill-advised enough here to suggest a cast in case this ever comes to pass. I mean, they’d obviously come to me first.

Nick Hood – Antony Starr (older than in the book, but he does flawed characters so well)
Susan Hood – Rebecca Ferguson
Andre Bellisle – Antony Sher
Gary Lauzon – Nick Offerman
Leo Forstadt – Thomas Kretschmann
Valerie Vale – Alice Englert

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