But over the last couple weeks, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.
Hangover Square, by Patrick Hamilton, has a decidedly more modern feel than any other of his work that I've read. Shorter sentences. Gone are the florid phrases, the Dickensian descriptions. (Hamilton stills pays homage though: our protagonist finds some healing power in the reading of David Copperfield.) The scenery is unimportant; it's what goes on inside his head that colours his world.
While all Hamilton's stories are bleak with unsavory characters, this novel feels downright sinister. I see for the first time in his novels the creepy, Hitchcockian quality of a psychological thriller, such as seen in Rope and Gaslight (of which I'm familiar with only the popular film adaptations), on which Hamilton's reputation was made. (Actually Hamilton did not approve of the film treatment of his works. I mean here only to underscore the presence of a dark and criminal element not fully evident in the other Hamilton novels I've read.)
It's 1939. Something's not right. Europe is on the brink of war. George Harvey Bone is on the brink of war within himself, about to be fully invaded by his other, murderous self.
George Harvey Bone is a large man, aimless, but kindly, a bit of a sap. He's smitten with a relatively unsuccessful film actress — he's a hanger-on, and a purveyor of whiskey. Her gang — his "friends" — makes fun of his "dumb moods." The thing is, George Harvey Bone has episodes — the blackouts are getting longer, more frequent. Drink is in great part responsible, and Netta's in great part responsible for all the drink.
Click! . . .
Here it was again! He was in London, in a taxi at night and it had happened again!
"Click..." That was the way to describe it. It was like the click of a camera shutter. Shutter! That was the word. A shutter had come down over his brain: he had shut down: he was shut out from the world he had been in a moment before.
The world he was in now was the same in shape, the same to look at, but "dead," silent, mysterious, as though its scenes and activities were all taking place in the tank of an aquarium or even at the bottom of the ocean — a noiseless, intense, gliding, fishy world.
It was as though he had suddenly gone deaf — mentally deaf.
It was as though one had blown one's nose too hard, and the outer world had become dim and dead. It was as though one gone into a sound-proof telephone booth and shut the door tightly on oneself.
There were a hundred and one ways of describing it. When it happened to him he always tried to describe it to himself — to analyse it — because it was such a funny feeling. He was not frightened by it, because he was used to it by now. But it was happening a good deal too often nowadays, and he wished it wouldn't.
It was such a weird feeling: it was always novel, and, in a way, interesting to him. It was though the people around him, although they moved about, were not really alive: as though their existence had no motive or meaning, as though they were shadows — rabbits or butterflies or kangaroos thrown on the wall by an amateur conjurer with a candle. And although they talked, and although he could understand what they said, it was not as though they had spoken in the ordinary way, and it was an effort to understand and to answer.
Take Netta, for instance, who was rather oddly and inexplicably sitting beside him in this taxi. He knew it was Netta well enough — but it was a different Netta. Although he could see her she was remote, almost impalpable, miles away — like a voice over the telephone, or the mental construction of the owner of a voice one might make while phoning — a ghost, if you liked.
He could hear and understand the words, but for the moment he couldn't gather what they meant. They seemed divorced from any context; or at any rate he didn't know what the context was. So he didn't answer. For the moment anyway, he was too interested in what had happened in his head.
Then, gradually, and as usual, and without his being aware of it, the feeling of novelty and strangeness, his conscious knowledge of the transition, of the falling of the shutter, faded away. And the world he was in now, the world under the sea, was his proper world, the only one he knew.
Some automaton takes over, operates on a simpler, baser level.
We are treated to a few of these episodes; in fact the novel opens with one, and within those first few pages we know this "other" George means to do away with Netta.
The episodes are punctuated with "clicks" and "snaps" and "cracks." Hamilton uses these verbs a great deal: they ease the reader between George's two worlds, but used "normally" with heels and tongues they also serve to create anticipation for the next episode.
George finally is quite sympathetic. He reestablishes contact with an old school friend. He's adopted the rooming house cat for his own. While most of the novel follows George's perspective, 2 short chapters give outside views: one from a young pub patron who observes Netta's group and meets George, one from George's landlady. I was rooting for George to get away from it all — a change of scene, a new crowd would do him so much good — read a little more Dickens, go see a doctor.
But part of me was rooting for the other George too, to do those nogoodniks in (Fascists they were!), they deserve it.
Aurgh! The suspense! Will he? won't he? do I really want him to? wait a minute, exactly how trustworthy is any of either of George's perspectives anyway? and what about the cat?
This book is unsettling in so many ways, not least its eerily credible view of mental illness as seen from the inside.
Considerable liberties were taken with the 1945 film version of Hangover Square, starring Laird Cregar.
An audio CD recording of Hangover Square is scheduled to be released in September 2007 and is available for preorder.
There's something delicious in discovering a "new" author with a whole catalogue of worlds to drown oneself in. There's something infinitely sad in having drunk them all with the knowledge that he can issue no new masterworks from beyond the grave. There's something tragic in knowing they keep the good stuff in a locked cupboard. Well, maybe not the good stuff, but an extra stash. For just in case. For a rainy day. And I don't think the cupboard's actually locked, just inaccessible, highly inconvenient. I mean: there's something tragic in knowing that there's more, somewhere, but it's out of print.
Very sadly, I have no more Patrick Hamilton on my shelf to read, nor is there much more available to read, barring serendipitous finds in used bookshops and/or extravagant expenditures. I'm crossing my fingers that next time my sister is in London she will manage to hunt down a copy of Impromptu in Moribundia. I plan to re-view both Rope and Gaslight in the not-too-distant future, this time with the eyes of a Hamilton expert (ahem). I plan to spill here everything I know about Patrick Hamilton, with a comprehensive index of everything I've posted on his works, a list of editions of his work, and links to other resources (including this fine report). Not that you care. But you should. He's really good.