The Modest Proposal

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The Gothic Imagination: Conversations on Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction in the Media Review by James M. Welsh John C. Tibbetts
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
$27.95/Paperback, $90.00/Hardcover

Note: This review first appeared in the Literature/Film Association Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1. It appears here as a follow-up to our John C. Tibbetts interview from earlier this year.

Maybe it's a right-brain/left-brain problem. Author/interviewer John Tibbetts is also an artist and therefore he thinks differently from the rest of us. (He also sees differently, but more on that anon.) He can't help it. He wants to write a book about the acrobatic American silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks, for example, so he wants to call it something poetic like "The Choreography of Hope," which tells readers nothing about Fairbanks, or his costume film antics, or swashbuckling silent movies, or matinee idols. He edits a book of interviews with s/f and fantasy authors and illustrators and filmmakers and stars, so he calls it "The Gothic Imagination," and hopes that reviewers may somehow find it. Luckily, Michael Dirda of The Washington Post did find it and reviewed it for the paper's Book World pages. Next thing you know, Tibbetts is being interviewed on radio from Kansas City, where he lives.

My contention would be that this interview book is really about adaptation, not only adaptation, but Adaptation Writ Large. Tibbetts covers, for example, the obvious classic Gothic novels: "All of the boundaries of Gothic themes and tropes, particularly the Frankenstein and Dracula prototypes," he writes, "are being redrawn and re-imagined, particularly in the novels of Brian Aldiss," (p.285), who is interviewed in the "Postmodern Gothic" section of the book. Aldiss claims that "the beginnings of real science fiction" were adapted from the Gothic novel. "The impulse behind my writing Frankenstein Unbound was, in a way, exegetical. I hoped to explain to people what Shelley's story was really about. She wants to deal with the 'secret fears of our nature.' I've always thought yes, that's one of the things that real science fiction does: treat 'the secret fears of our nature.' It's by no means about the future. Hence, I wrote my Frankenstein book." (p.330) Aldiss later discusses the Stanley Kubrick adaptation of his story "Super Toys Last All Summer Long." Then came the screenplay, a "process [that] took years," discussed here in detail.

Other interviews discuss other movie adaptations: Peter Straub felt "almost personally wounded after I realized what had happened to my book," Ghost Story (306). Stephen King discusses Carrie and The Shining. Tibbetts has two interviews with Chris Van Allsburg, whose Polar Express was adapted to film by Robert Zemeckis in 2004. Or how about Maurice Sendak discussing a one-act opera adapted from Where the Wild Things Are? Sendak was painting sets when Tibbetts interviewed him! Then there's the "conversation" with Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen, who grew up together in Los Angeles during the 1930s.

I first saw the Tibbetts book in Connectticut on my way to Toronto in the autumn of 2011. In Toronto I bought another spacey book, Margaret Atwood's In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2011), then, upon looking into it, I wondered why Tibbetts didn't include Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin? Were they not Gothic-worthy? Tibbetts could say, as Ms. Atwood does in her Introduction, the book that follows "is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive . . . Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms . . . " Atwood's as a writer, Tibbetts's as an interviewer and cultural gadfly. For the Tibbetts collection is a very personal one, going back to his childhood and dedicated to his father, James C. Tibbetts (1917-1998), "member of First Fandom, who first showed me the way to the worlds of wonder." The father, an enthusiastic and widely-known collector of fantasy, corresponded with Edgar Rice Burroughs and named his son John Carter Tibbetts after John Carter of Mars.

The reason John Tibbetts did not include Margaret Atwood, by the way, was that he had not personally met and interviewed her, as he had done with all of the writers and celebrities he could track down, after his tributes to H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Rice Burroughs. A personable broadcast journalist for years in Kansas City and once the editor of a movie fanzine, Tibbetts had opportunities most writers would have lacked. Active in a major media market in Kansas City, he was invited on movie junkets, which explains his interviews with the Star Trek character actors and with Superman star Christopher Reeves. It was on a Batman junket in 1989 that Tibbetts noticed Bob Kane, sitting isolated in a restaurant (since he was not a central part of the Hollywood hoopla for the Tim Burton movie), and sought him out for an interview and ended up with a personalized sketch of Batman and Robin, reproduced in the book. In other words, this book is loaded with surprises, for anyone interested in questions of adaptation or, more generally, in science fiction, fantasy, or the Gothic imagination.

For example, Tibbetts, himself an artist and illustrator, is interested in how Old World paintings have been "adapted" to New World settings and Americanized by Walt Disney, who, according to art historian Albert Boime (1933-2008) "draws" upon "dozens of European artists and fairy-tale illustrators for his animated features" (203) or German director F.W. Murnau, who "used the drawings of several of Goethe's Faust illustrators as models for his film, Faust" in 1926. Or Ken Russell, who used Henry Fuseli's "Nightmare" in his film Gothic (1986). Such examples are not, to my knowledge, commonly discussed in books treating adaptation theory. As noted earlier, Tibbetts sees differently.

He also listens for adaptations, as the author of books on Antonín Dvorák and Robert Schumann. Is it common knowledge that Claude Debussy used atonal systems to evoke the terrors of Edgar Allan Poe and attempted an opera adaptation of "The Fall of the House of Usher" or that Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, a piano work, was "inspired by what George Moore once called the ‘mad and morbid' prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand"? (279).

More obvious examples abound as well: Tibbetts interviews Robert Bloch (1917-1994), whose novel Psycho (1959) was famously adapted to film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1960. "Psycho is not a movie about a shower scene," Bloch advised Tibbetts: "It's a movie about the secrets of human beings, that they carry around with them" (30). One concludes, therefore, that awful shower scene must be distracting? So Psycho confronts "secret fears of our nature"? Something to ponder on a dark and stormy night.

How good is this book? Well, in February of 2012 it was nominated by the Horror Writers of America for their "superior achievement" 2011 Bram Stoker Award in non-fiction. It is a pleasure to read.

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