Wednesday, October 31, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week Special: Scream for Jeeves

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Happy Halloween, everybody! On this darkest of nights, what say we entertain ourselves by snuggling up in our cozy armchairs and reading some spooky, chilling, f'r instance, a Jeeves and Wooster story? But Bully! I hear you say (with your mouth all fulla candy corn) Jeeves and Bertie stories aren't scary! And there you have me. Wodehouse's work is nothing if not light and airy: a few scary aunts and threatened marriages aside, there's not a sliver of fright in the lot of 'em. So instead, let's wander off the well-lit path of Official Wodehouse Canon into the dimly-lit and spooky, dead-tree-laden dark woods of fan fiction, shall we? And like much fan fiction, it can be a scary, scary place...

Tonight's special Halloween offering is the professionally-printed but still unauthorized Scream for Jeeves: A Parody (1994) by P. H. Cannon, a loving if unorthodox homage and mashup of two initialed writers who probably never suspected their worlds could collide: P. G. Wodehouse and H. P. Lovecraft. I'll pause a moment to let that sink in, shall I? P. G. Wodehouse and H. P. Lovecraft. And, as we'll see in a while, a little dash of A. C. Doyle has been added to the bubbling mixture in the cauldron.

Scream for Jeeves (and I think that's a brilliant title) is a slim volume of three short stories and one historical essay—so brief that I read it all in one single one-way trip to Manhattan on the subway instead of the usual round trip. The conceit is that Bertie Wooster and Jeeves's right-ho Georgian world is the same in which Lovecraft's horrific dark ancient god Cthulhu is breaking through, and Bertie keeps bumbling into the mind-shearing events that precede a horrific bloody invasion with his usual cheerful aplomb (and the life- and sanity-saving help of Jeeves). I'm not as familiar with the world of Mister HPL as I am with Mister PGW, but Cannon certainly has his lead characters and especially the voice of Bertie Wooster down pat, even as he confronts things man was not meant to know:
'I trust you slept well, Mr. Wooster,' said my host, as he pushed the kippers about the plate in a morose, devil-take-the-hindmost sort of way.

'Like a top, old sport. Like a top.'

'I was harassed by dreams of the most horrible sort. First there was a vision of a Roman feast like that of Trimalcho, with a horror in a covered platter.'

'Could it have been something you ate?' I said, sounding the solicitous tone. I didn't want to hurt the old fellow's feelings, of course, so I refrained from saying that the fish sauce the night before had been someone below par. In truth, the cook at Exham Priory was not even in the running with Anatole, my Aunt Dahlia's French chef and God's gift to the gastric juices.

'Next I seemed to be looking down from an enormous height upon a twilit grotto, knee-deep in filth, where a white-bearded daemon swineherd drove about with his staff a flock of fungous, flabby beasts whose appearance filled me with unutterable loathing.'

'Could it have been something you read before retiring? "Mary Had a Little Lamb" perhaps? Mind you, that one's about a shepherdess, not a swineherd, but it's the same sort of thing, don't you know.'

'Then, as the swineherd paused and nodded over his task, a mighty swarm of rats rained down on the stinking abyss and fell to devouring beast and man alike.'

'Rats! By Jove, this is getting a bit thick. My man Jeeves thinks rats may have been the party to blame for your cats carrying on the other day like they had broken into the catnip.'
In fact, throughout the stories, Jeeves serves as our guide to the dark doings; he's remarkably well-informed (well, of course!) about ancient beasts and demons and is well-read in the work of Arthur Machen. Thanks to Jeeves, no real harm comes to Bertie throughout the course of their dread adventures—at least nothing that a stiff g. & t. won't whisk away later on:
Within an hour the altar stone was tilting backwards, counterbalanced by Tubby, and there lay revealed— But how shall I describe it? I don't know if you've ridden much though the tunnel-of-horrors featured at the better amusement parks, but the scene before us reminded me strongly of same. Through a nearly square opening in the tiled floor, sprawling on a flight of stone steps, was a ghastly array of human or semi-human bones. Not a pretty sight, you understand, but at least there was a cool breeze with something of freshness in it blowing up the arched passage. I mean to say, it could have been a noxious rush as if from a closed vault. We did not pause long, but shiveringly began to cut a swath through the ancestral debris down the steps. It was then that Jeeves noticed something odd.

'You will observe, sir, that the hewn walls of the passage, according to the direction of the strokes, must have been chiseled from beneath.'

'From beneath, you say, Jeeves?'

'Yes, sir.'

'But in that case—'

'For the sake of your sanity, sir, I would advise you not to ruminate on the implications.'
It's not great art and certainly can't stand up to the best of Wodehouse (or likely even Lovecraft), but it has a certain appeal, and it's just the right length. Sort of like a headline from The Onion, the concept is funny enough on its own without delving too deeply into exploring it, and three short stories running 64 pages total are just enough. It's tough to imitate Wodehouse without slipping into total parody, and Cannon carries it off most of the time, although occasionally he piles on so many of Bertie's self-references to actual Wodehouse events (Florence Craye, the article Bertie wrote for his aunt's magazine, Sir Roderick Glossop) that it just seems like he's including them just for sheer trivia's sake. And he's not above inserting an awkward, groan-inducing pop-culture reference when Bertie linguistically tangles with a foreign landlady:
'Ah, Mistair Jeeves, I so glad you come.'

'Wooster's the name, my good, woman.'

'Is just in time. Doctair Muñoz, he have speel his chemicals.'

'Well, I shouldn't worry if he spilled his chemicals on the woodwork or marble. I daresay no one will notice.'

'All day he take funnee-smelling baths.'

'Oh, really? Perhaps he got soap in his eyes and grabbed the jar of hydrogen sulfide instead of the bubble bath.'

'He cannot get excite.'

'He can't get outside? Yes, I know, Randy told me, but—'

'And the sal-ammoiniac—'

'Sal who?"


I was prepared to play Pat to Mrs. Herrero's Mike as long as I had to, but at that moment Randy arrived and put the kibosh on the cross-talk. 'Don't mind her," he explained, as he clouted his landlady affectionately on the occiput. 'She's from Barcelona.'
Sherlock Holmes is under the magnifying glass as well in these parodies: he pops up in the final of the three stories, thinly disguised as 'Altamont," Holmes's pseudonym in the Conan Doyle story "His Last Bow." That inclusion means Cannon can examine three authors instead of merely two: the last third of Scream for Jeeves is taken up with an essay entitled "The Adventure of the Three Anglo-American Authors: Some Reflections of Conan Doyle, P. G. Wodehouse, and H. P. Lovecraft," which is a nice-enough little piece if it were a salute or admiration, but Cannon attempts to be too scholarly and winds up failing to convince us of any of his arguments, especially when he begins by pointing out the similarities of Doyle, Wodehouse, and Lovecraft are that "the supreme fictional achievements of each are roughly comparable in size: Doyle's Sherlock Holmes canon consists of 56 stories and four novels; Wodehouse's Jeeves saga embraces 34 stories and 11 novels; and Lovecraft's core corpus, including his Mythos cycles, amounts to two dozen or so stories and three novels." He goes on to point out that such a superficial similarly proves nothing, which begs the question of why he begins his argument with it. The rest of the essay is devoted to drawing parallels and connections between the three authors. Unfortunately, most of the arguments can connect two of the trio but not the third, and much of it is based on post-facto circumstantial POV evidence that would get his work kicked off a Wikipedia page—for instance, he spends a hefty paragraph pointing out that Stephen King likes Lovecraft and has written a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and that actor Stephen Fry has also written a Holmes short story and has played Jeeves on television. He also spends a good deal of energy discussing racist language and attitudes in the work of the three authors, an argument that I don't think holds water (although I'm understandably prejudiced in favor of the idea that Wodehouse very seldom usages of the n-word were done innocently and in keeping with vernacular slang of the time rather than racism or hate). And then there's this specious argument:
Finally, like Bertie and his chums, Lovecraft had a penchant for assigning his friends funny nicknames, such as "Klarkash-Ton" for Clark Ashton Smith, "Melmoth the Wandrei" for Donald Wandrei, "Hilly Billy' Crawford for William L. Crawford, and "Sonny" or "Kid" or "Belknapius" for Frank Belknap Long, Jr. I rest my case.
Still, don't judge the book on the essay but on the fiction itself, which is amusing and competent. Cannon has the voice of Bertie Wooster down pitch-perfect, although those I've only read a smattering of Lovecraft in my time (it's a little too intense for a small stuffed animal!), he's got that unnerving sense of despair to a T as well. Wodehouse's books spin around the sparkling dialogue and Lovecraft's around the ponderous descriptive prose, and Cannon pulls off a tidy and artful balance of the two, especially bringing two such light and cheering characters into a dark world that is heavy with dread and encroaching despair. Like Lovecraft's work itself, the horrific End of Days events don't manifest themselves concretely in Scream for Jeeves—but the ever-present maddening pull into darkness and crushing dread of his world are wonderfully and elegantly portrayed, and it's an nifty solution to have Bertie black out conveniently whenever anything really horrific is about to happen, only to hear later on from Jeeves that it was all for the best that you did not observe the circumstances, sir. Let that be hope for all of us when the demons start climbing out of the fiery cracks in the broken earth: it's all just a nightmare that can be easily erased by a lingering hot bath and a stiff drink, and the quick wits and incalculable knowledge of our own gentleman's gentleman. After all, if Jeeves can stave off Honoria Glossop from marrying Bertie, then Cthulhu and his quivering tentacles aren't going to make him go 'boo.'

Scream for Jeeves was published by the (aptly named) Wodecraft Press and distributed by the Necronomicon Press, the publishing house where all the ISBNs end in 66-6, but you don't have to go to heck and back to secure a copy. Even though it's out of print, there's still plenty of used copies scurrying about like rats on the internet, and all you have to do is click on the Amazon link to the right and order yourself up a copy. Make sure you pay for it with Visa or MasterCard; never click on the "immortal soul" option when choosing payment at checkout.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


Novice said...

Bully, old chap!

I should pick up HPL, as I have literary love affaird with PGW and ACD.

When I was 11 or 12 I used to wonder who I wanted to marry more: Jeeves or Wooster.

I realized that Bertie would be a fun boyfriend, but Jeeves would be a better husband.

CLM said...

Normally I don't like fanfic (after all, in some people it turns into The Wind Done Gone) but this does sound fun! And I like your Halloween outfit, Bully.

Anonymous said...

That first and second excerpts you mention appear to be a spot-on retelling/parody (down to my recognition of specific sentences in your excerpt) of Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls. Which is a very well-written and very, very scary story. :-) Fun in a *completely* different way, I'd guess!

Anonymous said...

Mwa ha ha. Excellent choice, my old fluffy taurine. I've got this one and it's one of my prize possessions. Oddly enough, it's what first got me to read Lovecraft.

I laughed out loud when I first read the Barcelona line.

Yatz said...

Much respect, lil' bully! I thought I knew everything about PG (and everything I WANTED to know about HP), and yet you keep surprising me every week!

Monty Ashley said...

A somewhat less satisfying Wodehouse/Lovecraft pastiche appears in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Alan Moore doesn't quite capture Bertie's voice, and the whole thing ends up fairly disappointing.

Bully said...

I'm going to review that story one of these days, Monty.

As soon as I can get my 3D glasses back from my baby sister.

Unknown said...

This sounds very intriguing indeed! I might have to get a copy of that ...

Great article btw! Thanks.

Stuart said...

What ho, Bully! Thanks for a good look at this book. I just got a copy of Cannon's The Lovecraft Papers which collects Screem for Jeeves and his Pulptime, and was trolling around for some commentary.