Short takes: ‘Station Eleven,’ ‘Supernova Era’ and ‘House on Haunted Hill’

May 23, 2020

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 23, 2020

Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, got a lot of buzz when it came out in 2014. I finally got around to reading it this month.

It’s a strange but not entirely novel experience to read about a pandemic as one unfolds in real life. Fortunately, as disruptive as Covid-19 is, it isn’t nearly as contagious nor as deadly as the flu that kills at least 90 percent of the human race and destroys civilization in the near future depicted in Station Eleven.

Mandel’s narrative covers several characters’ experiences over a number of years both before and after the flu outbreak. The unifying theme, however, is that many of the characters — notably former paparazzo cum aspiring paramedic Jeevan Chaudhary, former aspiring artist cum shipping executive Miranda Carroll, former aspiring actor cum high-priced consultant Clark Thompson — are all linked to Arthur Leander, the famed screen actor who dies of a heart attack during a Toronto production of King Lear the night before Westerners start succumbing to flu at an alarming rate.

The story focuses, however, on Kirsten Raymonde, an eight-year-old actor in Leander’s last show. (“[T]hree little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene,” Mandel writes in the opening paragraph; a character later calls this “an innovative bit of staging.”) For no particular reason other than luck, Raymonde survives the outbreak. She subsequently joins the Traveling Symphony, a blandly and inaptly named outfit that repeatedly shuttles among the towns between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan in a two-year cycle.

Raymonde’s travails during a string of scorchingly hot days (interrupted by a memorable rainstorm) in late July in what the survivors call Year 20 constitute the heart of Station Eleven. In an early scene, the Traveling Symphony — actually a combined theatrical troupe and classical musical orchestra — returns to St. Deborah by the Water only to discover that the town has taken a turn for the worse. They depart quickly, but not without attracting the ire of the settlement’s self-styled prophet. The company begins to fracture during a pursuit by the prophet’s stealthy minions, threatening to destroy the only stability — the only family — that Raymonde has known as an adult.

Mandel writes about terrible events, and signals clearly that many of her characters are doomed. And yet Station Eleven is infused with a surprising amount of hope. There were moments that made me cringe, and points where I was afraid to continue reading, but the novel is unexpectedly uplifting in the end. Mandel’s newest novel, The Glass Hotel, has gotten some positive reviews, and I expect I’ll be reading more of her work.

Cixin Liu made his English-language debut in 2014 with The Three-Body Problem, a fascinating account of an alien species’ attempts to hobble science across a gap of literally interstellar proportions. This was the first entry in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, of which I have yet to read the final volume.

Three other Liu novels have been published in English, the most recent being Supernova Era, which came out last fall. The book debuted in Liu’s native Chinese in 2003, three years before The Three-Body Problem; the translation is by Joel Martinsen, who served the same role for The Dark Forest, the middle Remembrance book.

Supernova Era shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of The Three-Body Problem: Namely, ambition and imagination in the former column and thin characterization in the latter.

Liu posits the detonation of a nearby star, triggering a short but utterly brutal wave of hard radiation fatal to anyone over the age of about 12. (The youngsters’ DNA is resilient enough to overcome otherwise deadly effects.) Over a period of months, the doomed adults orchestrate a fairly orderly transition from the common era, sometimes called the time of the adults, to a supernova era, where society is entirely constituted of and run by children.

The handover is made smoother because, in one of Liu’s more unlikely developments, all the adults agree to commit mass suicide on schedule. However, the official start of the supernova era is marked, at least in China, by an overwhelming tide of emotion that Liu documents from the point of view of the ancient nation’s youthful leaders, who attempt to answer cries for help that flood into an advanced call center in Beijing.

That makes for one of the book’s more striking scenes, rivaled by some episodes in the militarized version of the Olympics that the world’s children later agree to stage. Along the way, Liu ushers the reader into a simulated fantasyland built by and for Chinese children, featuring, among other things, a town made entirely of candy and chocolate; an ice-cream eating competition among young heads of state from around the world; and a New York City suffering from an accelerated version of climate change at the same time its young denizens are indulging in nonstop gun battles.

All these goings-on are impressive from an intellectual standpoint. Unfortunately, the novel’s characters rarely seem sympathetic and even more seldom come off as realistic, fully fledged individuals. The most memorable character is the American secretary of state, the coldly calculating Chester Vaughn, who aspires to be a sort of Potemkin for the new era.

I listened to an audiobook version of Supernova Era narrated by Feodor Chin, who is generally excellent. The pedant in me was irritated, however, by his propensity for dropping the initial T in Antarctica and Antarctic. The book runs just shy of 13 hours.

The scholarly Vaughn wouldn’t waste his time viewing the work of William Castle, the prolific but schlocky mid–20th-century director who made his reputation with a string of gimmicky horror movies. I gather that the 1959 movie House on Haunted Hill was Castle’s second independent horror production, after Macabre; it was followed later that year by the infamous The Tingler, which in turn was succeeded in 1960 by the deeply silly 13 Ghosts.

House on Haunted Hill is a bit goofy at times, but it’s far better than 13 Ghosts. The premise is now classic: An eccentric millionaire invites five strangers to spend the night locked inside the titular House on Haunted Hill, the scene of several gruesome murders. Each guest who agrees to stay in the house past midnight, when the keepers depart, will get $10,000 if he or she survives until morning; if the guest doesn’t last the night, the money will go to her or his family. Those who leave before midnight, of course, get nothing.

Horror mainstay Vincent Price plays Frederick Loren, the oleaginous millionaire, who’s chosen the members of this strange “party” for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. Loren has never met any of the quintet, although pretty Nora Manning (a wooden Carolyn Craig) is one of his employees, and he negotiated the use of the mansion with guest Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook Jr., the spitting image of modern-day comic actor John C. Reilly), who inherited the property after his sister-in-law slaughter his brother there.

Manning and test pilot Lance Schroeder (Richard Long) soon resolve to investigate the weird goings-on in the house, amusing gossip columnist Ruth Bridgers (Julie Mitchum) and psychiatrist David Trent (Alan Marshal). But they become a lot less sanguine when something awful happens to Annabelle Loren (Carol Ohmart), the businessman’s cosmopolitan wife.

Screenwriter Robb White, who also scripted 13 Ghosts, has devised an intriguing plot. The exercise comes off as a bit frivolous by the end, but the journey is quite enjoyable even so.

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