Several prepublication reviews of your new novella note that it’s “inspired” by the famous German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Must a reader have seen that 1920 silent movie to appreciate your book?
I always wanted my use of the Caligari mythos to stand on its own, wholly independent of the movie. The basic narrative, a satire on war profiteering, has nothing to do with Robert Wiene’s celebrated cinematic experiment. That said, a familiarity with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari will help readers to get some of my book’s references and allusions. I suppose my project is somewhat like the game Charles Frazier played in Cold Mountain with The Odyssey and John Updike played in Roger’s Version with The Scarlet Letter.
And yet there is a connection between the Great War and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Indeed. The screenwriters, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, emerged from the catastrophe of 1914-1918 as lifelong pacifists (Janowitz served as an officer, and Mayer feigned madness to avoid military service). Evidently they intended their film as an antiwar allegory. For Janowitz and Mayer, Caligari the sideshow mesmerist symbolized the military authorities who sacrificed an entire generation to their unholy ambitions. Cesare the somnambulist, meanwhile, represented the young men whom those same authorities transfixed with Kriegslust, love of war.
In my novella, all of this becomes very explicit. While offering art therapy to his students at a European mental institution in 1914, my hero, Francis Wyndham, comes to realize that his employer, the sorcerer Caligari, has created an epic Expressionist painting so hypnotic it can compel entire regiments to rush headlong into battle. The plots turns on the efforts of Francis and his supernaturally talented student, Ilona Wessels, to create a Guernica-like rejoinder to Caligari’s dark masterpiece.
I liked the touch whereby Friedrich Nietzsche spends his final days as a patient of Dr. Caligari’s at your fictional asylum. In the novella, Caligari offers a Nietzsche-inspired appraisal of the Great War, calling it “transcendently meaningless.” Is that your own view?
When researching World War I for The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, I exposed myself to the full range of political and sociological interpretations. On the non-sardonic end of the spectrum, for example, we have The First World War by Hew Strachan, the last two sentences of which read, “In short it shaped not just Europe but the world in the twentieth century. It was emphatically not a war without meaning or purpose.”
Anyone who’s read This Is the Way the World Ends or Shambling Towards Hiroshima—or my short stories “Arms and the Woman” and “Known But to God and Wilber Hines”—would correctly infer I’m sympathetic to pacifism and take a dim view of soldiering. I was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War (not an easy status for an atheist to achieve). While I understand that a nation’s military will occasionally function nobly and honorably, my take on WWI accords with David Stevenson’s Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. For Stevenson, the conflict in question was utter folly, a danse macabre choreographed by professional mediocrities and ideological fanatics who had no business holding the fate of the world in their hands.
May I assume The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of your favorite films?
It’s a movie I appreciate more than I love. I wonder if any film critics have ever complained about the unevenness of the mise en scène. Many of the images are marvelous (such as the iconic tableau of Cesare on the Expressionist rooftop beside the crooked chimneys). But to my eye many of the sets, such as the foyer of the insane asylum, are badly conceived and crudely realized, and that cheesiness blows me out of the dream.
I value Caligari mainly for the influence it exerted on the lighting, cinematography, and décor of the Universal horror films of the thirties and forties. The urban exteriors and castle interiors in Son of Frankenstein (1939) allude explicitly to German Expressionism, and there are flashes of what the French call caligarisme in Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and The Invisible Ray (1936).
You mentioned Shambling Towards Hiroshima, which, like The Asylum of Dr. Caligari, incorporates quite a bit of motion picture lore.
Shambling turns on the premise that in 1945 the U.S. Navy has bred a generation of Godzilla-like, city-stomping monsters, and the hero, reminiscent of Lon Chaney, Jr., has to put in a lizard suit and demonstrate the new weapon’s awesome powers before a Japanese delegation (who will them presumably persuade the emperor to sue for peace).
In retrospect, it seems that Shambling Towards Hiroshima, The Madonna and the Starship, and The Asylum of Dr. Caligari constitute an informal trilogy exploring the intersection of popular culture and my philosophicopolitical obsessions. Madonna is about the early days of television, when most of the original programs were live broadcasts. My hero, who writes a children’s show reminiscent of Space Patrol, finds himself obligated to frantically rejigger a Sunday morning religious program, making it seem blasphemous and irreverent. Otherwise my alien antagonists, “logical positivists from outer space” who resemble bipedal blue lobsters, will exterminate the show’s audience (two million strong) in the name of their nihilistic hyper-rationality.
Is “philosophicopolitical” a word?
It is now.
Are you planning to add a fourth book to your trilogy?
A prescient question. Two years ago I published, in the Sleights of Hand issue of the literary magazine Conjunctions, a story set largely in Mexico City during the early 1960’s. Among its various agendas, “Tactics of the Wraith” celebrates that country’s earnest little black-and-white horror movies (and the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations that Roger Corman was concurrently shooting north of the border). I can easily imagine expanding the story, changing the title, and producing another pop-culture-inflected philosophicopolitical romp to put on the shelf beside Shambling, Madonna, and Caligari. I’ll keep you posted.
So some of those Mexican horror films are actually worthwhile?
Rafael Baledón’s The Curse of the Crying Woman (1961) is a visual feast, almost as rich as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960).
What’s the greatest benefit of being a fulltime fiction writer?
Getting paid for dreaming.
What’s the greatest drawback?
Not getting paid enough for dreaming.
Thank you for an enjoyable conversation, Jim.
Let’s do it again sometime.
James Morrow‘s The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is published by Tachyon Publications. Here’s the official synopsis:
If you think today’s profiteers are diabolical, blink again…
It is the summer of 1914. As the world teeters on the brink of the Great War, a callow American painter, Francis Wyndham, arrives at a renowned European insane asylum, where he begins offering art therapy under the auspices of Alessandro Caligari — sinister psychiatrist, maniacal artist, alleged sorcerer.
Determined to turn the impending cataclysm to his financial advantage, Dr. Caligari will — for a price — allow governments to parade their troops past his masterpiece: a painting so mesmerizing it can incite entire regiments to rush headlong into battle.
As the doctor’s outrageous scheme becomes a reality, Francis joins with his brilliant, spider-obsessed student, Ilona Wessels, and a band of lunatic saboteurs to thwart the mercenary magic.
By radically reimagining the most famous of all German Expressionist silent films, satirist James Morrow has wrought a timely tale that is by turns funny and erotic, tender and bayonet-sharp — but ultimately The Asylum of Dr. Caligari emerges as a love letter to that mysterious, indispensable thing called art.