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A table, a fruit bowl and one shrivelled apple

14 July 2013

Richard Johnstone reviews Mark McShane’s Séance on a Wet Afternoon

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Comedy, mystery, horror and the occult: writer Mark McShane.

Comedy, mystery, horror and the occult: writer Mark McShane.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon
By Mark McShane | MysteriousPress.com | US$13.99


MARK McSHANE’s 1961 thriller Séance on a Wet Afternoon has been adapted four times since its initial publication. The first, Bryan Forbes’s 1964 film of the same title, remains the best known – better known, in fact, than the novel. Though not especially successful when it was released, it has grown considerably in reputation. Richard Attenborough, who co-produced the film with Forbes as well as acting in it, later identified the role as his best performance. In 2002, after a long gap, the Japanese horror film director Kiyoshi Kurosawa made a telemovie that took further liberties with the plot but remained, as did the earlier film, more or less faithful to the essentials. There has been an adaptation for radio – first broadcast on BBC Radio4 in 2010, with the excellent Anton Lesser as narrator – and, most adventurously of all, an opera. The opera, by Stephen Schwartz, who is best known as the lyricist and composer of the musical Wicked, had its premiere in Santa Barbara in 2009, and was performed in New York in 2011.

Opera was a departure for Schwartz, whose prolific career had been up till that point focused on musical theatre and music for film. Following the spectacular success of Wicked on Broadway in the early 2000s, he had felt the need for a change of direction. His executive producer, Michael Jackowitz, recalls, in appropriately fourth-dimensional terms, what happened next: “I have a prediction to make,” he told Schwartz at the time. “I believe you are going to write an opera.” Schwartz had formerly considered Séance on a Wet Afternoon as the possible basis for a musical, but rejected the source material as too dark. Opera, on the other hand, seemed the ideal medium. It is clear from the opera itself, however, and from comments made by Schwartz on the opera’s website and elsewhere, that the key text that he looked to for inspiration was the 1964 film rather than the original novel, not least, perhaps, because of the somewhat operatic – and chillingly effective – performance of Kim Stanley in the film’s leading role, as the determined and increasingly deranged medium, Myra Savage.

Schwartz’s version of Séance on a Wet Afternoon was scheduled for inclusion in Opera Queensland’s 2012 season, but the production did not eventuate. Which is a pity, really, because an Australian production would have constituted, metaphorically at least, a kind of homecoming for Mark McShane, and with it an opportunity for him to be recognised as the original creator of the spookily memorable Myra, an achievement that has been almost entirely overwhelmed by the weight of subsequent adaptations. A kind of homecoming because, while having lived most of his adult life in Spain, on the island of Mallorca, Mark McShane was born, in 1930, in Sydney, where he spent at least part of his childhood and, as far as can be gleaned from the scant biographical details that are both publicly available and unambiguously expressed, a further period in young adulthood. The dust jacket of a later novel, And They Say You Can’t Buy Happiness, first published in 1979 under his alternative pen-name of Marc Lovell, has him rather coyly referred to as having been “born on an island north of Tasmania,” then travelling until the age of thirty, before settling “on another island – Mallorca.” As if to reinforce this impression of someone not quite of the mainland, and keen to emphasise his own distinctive, slightly off-centre trajectory in life, McShane has also laid claim to “Gypsy roots.”

McShane’s move to Mallorca from London, where he was living at the time, came at the very beginning of his literary career. His first novel, The Straight and the Crooked, appeared in 1960, to be succeeded in turn by one and sometimes two or three novels a year for the following three decades, with comedy, mystery, horror and the occult deployed in various combinations. Writing as Marc Lovell, McShane had some success in the seventies and eighties with a light-hearted series featuring a very tall detective called Appleton Porter. Donald Sutherland played Porter in the 1987 film The Trouble with Spies, directed by Burt Kennedy and based on a 1983 novel from the series. (The title of the novel, Apple Spy in the Sky, gives a flavour of McShane in more humorous mode.) But despite some fun involving stalwarts such as Ruth Gordon and Michael Hordern and Robert Morley, the film’s reception was muted and no sequels followed.

There is not much humour or fun in Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It is, apart from the occasional and mordant authorial aside, claustrophobically grim. Myra Savage is a medium who is convinced by her own special talents and who chafes at the lack of recognition. “Myra was a sensitive, a medium, a para-normal. And a genuine one; she believed in what she did.” But Myra, despite the genuineness of her self-belief, is not without theatrical instincts. In the past she has worked in “show business,” as assistant to a mind reader, party to all his tricks and deceptions. The experience serves her well when her deferential and devoted husband comes up with the idea that will grow into the Plan. Bill will kidnap a child – “borrow” is Myra’s word for it – and over the next few days they will extract a ransom from the distraught parents. Then Myra, displaying the gift of second sight, will lead the police to the money and the child, who will be found safe and unharmed. Myra’s reputation as a medium will be assured. “The fact that her reputation would rest on a fraud didn’t disturb her. It was cheating for an honourable end.” It all goes wrong, of course, but it is the way it goes wrong, and the way McShane succeeds in establishing a tightly ordered world that is doomed to fracture, that gives this short novel its considerable force.

Myra’s sparsely furnished home is a monument to geometrical precision. “In the centre of the hardcord carpet was a dining-table and four chairs; in the centre of the table was a wooden fruit bowl which held one shrivelled apple.” Myra is precise about language, too. “I think you had better change lock of hair,” she tells Bill as he compiles the ransom note from newspaper cuttings. The word “lock,” reasons Myra, suggests “curly,” and the hair of the little girl they have kidnapped is straight. “Better to say piece.” The couple argues over whether the ransom – twenty-five thousand pounds in cash – will fit into the particular kind of holdall bag they specify. They agree that ten thousand in fivers, and the rest in ones, should do the trick. As it transpires, the ransom doesn’t fit, but by then the whole scheme is well on the way to unravelling and it hardly matters.

In the Forbes film, the character of Myra communes with the spirit of her dead son, emphasising the link between her loss – a permanent one, were it not for the spiritual connection – and the temporary loss that she and Bill set about imposing on the parents of their chosen victim. The dead son is also incorporated into Schwartz’s opera, but he does not figure at all in the original novel. McShane forgoes this kind of dramatic highlighting, which seems in any case to sit more comfortably on the screen or the stage, in favour of a subtler and in its way quite moving evocation of the state of childlessness. Myra, who displays no aptitude for motherhood, sees the kidnapped child as a kind of miniature adult, a rival to be controlled and bested. Myra had “had little to do with children… and could never understand why they behaved so childishly.” Bill, by contrast, slips rapidly into paternal mode, worrying whether the little girl will be warm enough in the spare room they’ve prepared for her. Bill and Myra become a parody of parenthood, one indulgent, one stern. Bill tries to take their prisoner a cup of tea and a “slab of cake” but Myra prevents him. “She does not really deserve this,” says Myra.

A decade later, in 1972, Mark McShane produced a sequel to Séance on a Wet Afternoon called Séance for Two, in which the character of Myra Savage also appears. McShane goes to considerable lengths in Séance for Two to establish continuity with the earlier novel, rehearsing its plot in some detail, but by 1972 Myra’s moment had passed. She seemed then and seems now to belong naturally to that crucial moment when the fifties turned into the sixties, when conventional structures of domestic life were giving way to new ideas about family and careers and about the relationship between parents and children. Séance on a Wet Afternoon, with its hauntingly euphonious title, creates a drab and airless world in which frustration and resentment have nowhere to go. The adaptations have taken McShane’s plot and characters and redrawn them in bolder lines, but there is something about the flat matter-of-factness of the original novel’s tone, and of Myra and Bill’s capacity to view their crime as merely a logical and essentially harmless way of displaying Myra’s talents to the world, that retains the power to unsettle and disturb, and also, when the ending does come, to shock. •

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons