Last week I caught up with 1935 and read It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. It’s the novel everyone is talking about these days because it tells the only story in town: that of a lying, cruel, bullying, sexist, racist demagogue who seduces the overlooked and underserved masses left behind by the everyday political classes and manages to become elected President of the United States, only to immediately start building a fascist state.
The book is modern and fast, and cleverly spends the first hundred pages in the days before the far off future election of 1936, focusing on the lives of a sweet American smalltown family confused by the sudden poison in their humdrum political debate. The characters are warm and familiar, and there is a constant and welcome dry sense of humour behind them all. Then comes the regime and the militia and the concentration camps.
It’s chilling, and unforgiving, and the hero – a sixty-something journalist who knows better but is terrified to realise that he can no longer convince anyone – is under no illusions that he shares responsibility for the election of this monster because from the start he treated the candidate as a freak, as someone with whom to be fascinated rather than as something to be expelled…
It’s a neat point, one Jon Ronson makes very convincingly in The Psychopath Test: our societies and systems are designed to work for the everyday, and often react to the outsider monster by redoubling their efforts to normalise and translate the uncanny into something they can deal with, instead of trusting judgement and immediately rejecting.
Lewis also wrote Elmer Gantry, which became the 1960 Burt Lancaster film. The tale of a travelling preacher, who believes nothing of what he inspires in his adoring audiences, is a grim and charismatic one, and in the movie Lancaster is the embodiment of the charming, physically perfect, intelligent thug who moves through us like the apex predator we all want to dine with, however we can.
Yesterday I caught up with 1895 and read The King In Yellow by Robert W Chambers. It’s a collection of stories set in a strange world where an unthinkable play exists, whose only purpose is to drive its readers mad. The play within the stories within the book, The King In Yellow is hinted at only in fragments – there is a land, and a regime in turmoil, and a stranger who appears and brings with him inescapable cataclysm. The play is a virus, an infection that spreads through those who encounter it, and the effect is wonderfully offputting and familiar:
Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
from Cassilda’s Song, The King In Yellow, Act I, Scene 2
Lovecraft was inspired by Chambers’s occult history of forbidden texts and half-revealed secret crimes against nature to craft his Cthulhu mythos… and a hundred artists have followed his lead, as you can see today in Providence, True Detective and Twin Peaks…
Two of the stories are set in the far distant America of 1920, where a new President has ushered in a utopia of peace and prosperity that also incorporates vehement anti-Semitism, foreign wars and state-sanctioned suicide booths…
The President of 1936 in It Can’t Happen Here is President Windrip, and the President of 1920 in The King In Yellow is President Winthrop.
So now I’m seeing a tattered veil over the world where masked mad god kings rule us into ruins, in a world that only seems as if it’s in the future. And it’s always the same masked mad god king, and we have always elected him, and we keep pretending that the ruins aren’t ruins, that they’ve always been like this.
Good night and good luck.