Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shadow Play

Shadow Play, by Marvin Werlin
March, 1977 Pocket Books

This is the first Gothic I've ever read, though it's a late-era model for sure; it's my understanding the genre had died out by the mid-'70s. But regardless a Gothic is mostly what Shadow Play is; we have a willfull female narrator, an Old Dark House filled with degenerates, and even a dashing young man to save our distressed damsel. The draw for me though is the book's focus on classic film; the villain of the tale, Max Deveraux, is a wealthy film fanatic who has created his own Xanadu, where he likes to enact scenes from various '30s and '40s movies, often with bloody results.

Christine Glenville is our heroine, a film scholar who is trying to escape a messy past in San Francisco. Christine's boyfriend is a suddenly-hot director who knows of a millionaire film-fan who often funds movies. The man, Deveraux, is looking for an assistant to come out to his rolling mansion in Mendocino, and once he learns of Christine's knowledge of classic film, he offers her the position.

The mansion is massive, an exact replica of Manderley in Rebecca. In fact each room is modeled exactly after one classic film or another, all at incredible expense. (The veranda is even a replica of the one in Death Takes A Holiday; quite a feat, as anyone who has seen that '34 film would know.) And the place has been staffed with a cast of eccentrics: Deveraux's wife, who both looks and acts like Marlene Dietrich, a gaunt chaffeur who comes off like Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House, even a mentally-unstable English beauty who claims to be Deveraux's niece. And there's Deveraux himself, given to grandiose speeches about the superiority of golden age film while strolling about his acre-spanning domain.

Christine has a hard time absorbing it all. There seems to be a weird vibe to the place and lots of coy looks between Deveraux and his wife, and also the chaffeur, Corrin, seems pretty bitter about something. Adding to Christine's uncertainty about all this is the arrival of Toby, a dashing young drifter who in a bizarre scene is beaten up by a drunken older man and left for dead in the middle of the road, where Christine and Corrin later find him. (Toby's scenes incidentally are written in third-person, as are other bits in the novel, which leads to a bit of a jar as we're in Christine's first-person narration, then after a short-space drop we're suddenly in the third-person POV of another character.)

The novel takes its good old time getting to the lurid stuff, which in fact isn't even all that lurid. Deveraux enjoys recreating scenes from classic films on a stage for the benefit of his servants; the films of Josef von Sternberg are a particular favorite, with Deveraux's wife of course taking the Dietrich role. But the plays take on the air of Grand Guignol as graphic violence is added to the scenes, material that never would have gotten past censors in the '30s.

Gradually Christine discovers that she had a predecessor here, one who went missing. Of course the reader is well ahead of her and knows the truth long before Christine does: the former assistant was killed as a result of Deveraux's mad scene-playing, everyone in the mansion is friggin' nuts, and Christine and Toby need to get the hell out of there but quick.

There's a bit of sex and violence here and there but it's all skimmed over. The addition of sex -- even though only alluded to -- already places the novel outside of the Gothic, at least so far as Dean Koontz defined the genre in his Writing Popular Fiction. In fact all I know about Gothics is what I read about them in Koontz's how-to book.

I wish the classic film stuff was a bit more prevalent, but Shadow Play does at least show how the movies of the past can so affect one that it can lead them to acts of madness. As a funny sidenote, Deveraux reveals his plan at one point to one day write a book about the impact of film on culture -- Geoffrey O'Brien actually did this, with his ludicrously pretentious 1993 offering The Phantom Empire.

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