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She got in, and took the wheel again, and me and the Greek kept on singing, and we went on. It was all part of the play. I had to be drunk, because that other time had cured me of this idea that we could pull a perfect murder. This was going to be such a lousy murder it wouldn’t even be a murder.

The pleasure in reading noir fiction comes not so much from the plots, but from the manner in which the author plays with such familiar tropes, the use of language, the characters sketched in this genre of bitterness, frustrated desires and disappointment. Of James M. Cain’s fans, one obvious pair is the Coen Brothers, whose first film Blood Simple was a love letter to his stories of barren lives competing for survival.

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic noir tale that manages to sum up the themes and tropes of the genre within a single slim volume.

Frank Chambers is a drifter, a bum and an ex-con, who wanders into a hot-dog diner twenty miles outside of L.A. to try and scam a free lunch. The owner Nick Papadakis is in need of a willing employee to help run the shop and indulges this drifter in order to convince him to take the job. Frank is not falling for the false concern of the Greek and is moments away from saying no when he sees Mrs Papadakis, Cora. From that moment on Frank wants nothing more than to make her his own.

Wasting no time he manages to seduce the lonely former beauty queen from Iowa, discovering that she carries within her untapped frustrations that won’t simply settle for skipping out of town and living on the road. She sees Frank, despite her passionate love for him, as little more than a bum. Her solution to their problems is more elaborate. Kill the Greek and fake his death as an accident. Despite himself, Frank finds himself plotting Nick’s death.

This book races along to its grim finale, with its black, skewed morality never flagging for a moment. Cora is not quite Lady MacBeth, but her ambitions put the self-proclaimed smarts of Frank to shame. For a man who supposedly lives by his wits, he often manages to succumb to lust and fear often enough to be taken for a fool. Of course the most immoral character in this book of insensitive husbands, ex-cons and murderers is – a lawyer, named Katz, whose sole interest is in winning the cases he fights, regardless of the innocence, or guilt of the defendants.

The Postman Always Rings Twice has been favoured by Hollywood by adaptation to film more than once. It is easy to see why. This is a tightly plotted narrative, bound up in the self-pitying reflections of Frank, who makes for a willing confessor. It also dips into, controversial for its time, themes of sadism and rough sexuality, ensuring its place in the history books by having been banned.

Worth investigating for anyone interested in the genre.

An overwhelming noise hit him, a bustling, howling sound, tumultuous in its overall effect. Listened to individually, however, the sounds were only whispers. Coarse and parched. Burnt voices.

One thing that I do not understand about Horror fiction is why it is often so overwritten. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski was to my mind the best horror novel of that last decade – and yet! It certainly was not written in a simple or direct manner. What the genre needs is a George Orwell-type, capable of describing a sense of dread with uncomplicated language. James Herbert is not that writer. However, the premise of The Survivor initially seemed to be quite a simple one.

A 747 passenger jet crashes just outside the town of Eton. Out of the wreckage a single figure emerges, the co-pilot of the flight. Miraculously he is completely unhurt. In fact his clothing is neither torn, nor even singed. David Keller’s survival is seen as an example of freakish good fortune at first, although soon the public begins to view the man with suspicion. His claims of amnesia provide no insight into how three hundred lives were so tragically lost and his employers at the airline realize he is no good to them as a pilot. They give him an extended period of paid leave in lieu of laying him off for fear of negative publicity. Keller himself wonders if somehow he was responsible for the crash, if his negligence led to the deaths of all the passengers on board. The victims include his air-stewardess girlfriend Cathy, as well as his mentor Captain Rogan. Keller has flashes of Rogan shouting angrily at him on the days leading up to the crash. Might their falling out have led to the disaster?

Meanwhile the townsfolk of Eton are disturbed by a rapid increase in the number of accidental deaths surrounding the site of the crash. The body of a local shopkeeper is found by the river, seemingly having collapsed as a result of a heart attack. A married couple fall to their deaths from their bedroom window. A school boy is discovered dismembered on train tracks. Unbeknownst to the people of Eton a single malevolent force is behind all of these deaths, one that is growing stronger each day. Keller is contacted by a reluctant spiritualist who claims that the souls of the dead are calling on him to aid them, but warns that there is another force at work. A demonic presence that was already on board the flight, that refuses to accept death.

This is a very grim and gruesome little tale. On the one hand the vengeful spirits of the flight passengers stalking the townspeople of Eton provide ample opportunity for Herbert to describe burnt flesh and grasping, skeletal claws. On the other, we have the moral turpitude of almost every single character within the book. Everyone is either an adulterer, corrupt, mad, or in the unfortunate example of the school boy, too fat to live. Then there is the villain of the piece, a composite figure of Aleister Crowley and Oswald Mosley. Did Herbert read over an early draft of the novel and think to himself ‘well, sure, murdering ghosts who resemble burn victims are all well and good, but what this book really needs is undead satanic anti-semites!’

Also apparently Catholic priests have superpowers. Anglican clerics haven’t a hope though.

As a result I found myself struggling to care whether anyone lived, or not. There is an attempt to address some larger themes, such as this passage: Keller had wondered how assassins of this magnitude justified their actions – [..] Their own madness justified it for them. To them, the whole world was guilty.

Yet Herbert makes no effort to counter this idea. An old man, who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the novel, seems to represent the notion that the only purpose in life is to survive for as long as possible.

Anyway, so I’m reading about the ghostly whispering, the apparitions of the dead, an immoral cast of characters, the plane crash survivor guided by some unseen purpose to defeat evil – and it hit me. This book is an awful lot like J.J. AbramsLost! Sure Eton is no desert island, but thematically the two stories are quite alike (both end inconclusively too). Maybe Herbert’s publishers should look into this.

Overall I found this book to be depressing and unsatisfying.

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