Monday, June 15, 2020

How I Would Have Done Ramsey Campbell's THE HUNGRY MOON

A week or two ago, I read British horror author Ramsey Campbell's Lovecraftian tale The Hungry Moon. Although I liked the title and the concept and there were some good moments (like a psychic vision revealing the monstrous Lovecraftian moon god's full back-story), overall I didn't enjoy the book. The American evangelist Godwin Mann came off to me like a massive anti-Christian straw-man, the ending didn't really make a lot of sense, and there was too much psychodrama and not enough otherworldly stuff.

However, it's easy to complain. Like I've done before on this blog with movies like The Last StarfighterMortal Kombat, and Priest and on Myopia Movies' Patreon, here are some ideas I had that could improve the book. Warning--here there be spoilers.

*In general, I'd tighten up the cast. There are lots and lots of characters and it's hard to tell them all apart. And so many of them have problems that the story is filled up with their drama rather than focusing on the "American preacher accidentally unleashes a Druidic moon god who now wants nuclear weapons" that brought the story to my attention.

*Ix-nay on how the outside world forgets the town of Moonwell exists. If the events of the story took place on a faster timetable, there'd be no need for it. Furthermore, the fact people in London are forgetting about a town in the Peak District hundreds of miles north raises questions as to just how powerful the moon-god is and whether it even really needs to storm the nearby nuclear base in the first place. Why not just mind-control Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and have her launch one at Moscow?

*Play up the nuclear fears. The placement of U.S. nuclear weapons in Great Britain was a very controversial topic in the 1980s, but other than anti-nuclear protests being mentioned and the danger that the moon god would seize control of nearby nukes in order to effect its revenge on mankind for defeating and imprisoning it, this isn't a big part of the story. It's a massive missed opportunity, especially since the climax of the story involves several characters trying to escape the town to get to the missile base ahead of the moon-god and its minions. Female lead Diana Kramer is already an American working in Britain; in my version, she's the wife or daughter of a soldier on the base who got a job working in the town's British school (perhaps the base's school didn't have any teaching positions but administration knew someone who could get her a work permit) rather than someone who emigrated to Britain on her own. She sees what's going down in Moonwell and owing to her direct connection to the base and greater knowledge of what's there, she knows exactly what could happen if the moon god and its devotees gain access to the nukes.

*Consequently, when the possessed Mann fully manifests as the monstrous moon-god, Diana and her remaining allies (after some are killed by the moon-god or its devotees) rush back to the base to warn them of impending assault by "Mann" and its followers. Meanwhile, the cultists are in hot pursuit and the moon god is tormenting them with psychic visions. The book would then climax with something more like a zombie apocalypse outside the now-warned base's gates but with an extraterrestrial monster as the commander and heavy combatant, rather the rather strange and sedate failed escape sequence and the Deus Ex Machina ending.

*Play up the fears of losing control of one's country more broadly. The British once ruled most of the world, but they lost their empire in the 1950s and 1960s and endured a stagnant 1970s. The defeat of the Argentines in the Falklands War boosted their self-esteem, but at the same time they did receive logistical help from the U.S. The placement of American nukes in Britain--weapons that could be launched at the Soviets and invite retaliation on British soil theoretically without any input from the British themselves--is a particularly extreme symptom of a bigger cause.

To that end, I'd connect the nuclear fears and the semi-villainous Mann. Rather than just randomly showing up, I'd have him associated with the nearby American base in some capacity. Perhaps he's a military chaplain or someone associated with the American Christian Right who pulled strings to travel with some followers to live on the facility and use it as a base for his own evangelical efforts.

(A hanger-on would be better, as a military chaplain has very specific responsibilities and is subject to the chain of command. If the base chaplain is spending all his time having rallies in a nearby town and neglecting his soldiers, his superior officer can put a stop to it. A civilian employee or someone who's associated with the base but nobody can explain how might have more leeway.)

I'd also play up the clash between the more easygoing Anglicans represented by the more liberal-minded local vicar, who protested against the nukes and apparently lost congregants as a result, and the more zealous American preacher and his converts. We do see a little bit of that with the Americans' children bothering British children in the school about the sins they need to confess and Mann's Americans followers willing to work without pay to get teaching positions and making the local school, which already had problems, much more unpleasant, but we could get more theological. Mann could cite Revelation 3:14-22 to claim the Anglican churches are the area are "lukewarm," for example, and that he, being British on his father's side and the son of a celebrity to boot, is particularly qualified to revitalize it. Meanwhile, the older vicar thinks Mann is a combination of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and too much enthusiasm (Proverbs 19:2 comes to mind) and when he starts trying to interfere with the annual ceremony at the Druids' cave, he's stirring up something that's beyond him. Even from a Christian point of view he might think it's something Mann cannot handle--see the biblical story of the demon the Apostles couldn't drive out or the misadventures of the sons of Sceva.

*I would also tone down Mann. The back-story for him Campbell establishes explains his mentality pretty well--as a result of drug use and sexual abuse at the hands of his British actor father's friends culminating in a suicide attempt, he converts to a very zealous sort of Christianity and then devotes himself to spreading it. And Campbell does avoid the temptation of making him a hypocrite stealing money from the till or sleeping with his secretary--he may be a meddling zealot, but his willingness to confront what he thinks is a demon (the imprisoned moon god in the druids' cave) shows great physical courage (the ropes he uses to rappel into a seemingly bottomless cave could break) and faith that whatever lurks there, his God is stronger. He's an antagonist, but he's not a cliche.

However, although Campbell states that he based him on Billy Graham after seeing him at a crusade in Liverpool, his beliefs and actions (and those his followers undertake in his name) are very out of character for Graham. I have never heard of Graham exhorting his followers to burn "ungodly" books, for example, or engage in subversive and control-freak behavior. Really hard-core fundamentalists objected to Graham's openness toward Catholicism, for example. This Catholic writer agrees with their claims about Graham's ecumenism, although he obviously doesn't think this is a bad thing. The same with this one. And it was the Klan who burned Beatles albums, not Graham or his followers. Graham seemed primarily focused on spreading the core Christian gospel above all else, especially after his association with Richard Nixon burned him so badly.

If Mann is supposed to be an evil (or at least arrogant and bone-headed) version of Graham, once he's possessed by the god he confronts in the cave, it would make more sense for him to have near-continuous rallies--the worshipers' fervor is reviving the moon god to its ancient potency--rather than meddle in the town's affairs overmuch. That would also provide a reason for his followers to persecute those who don't go along--he/it needs as many people fueling it as possible and they're not helping. That way we could still have the confrontation with the local comedian who mocks Mann and the eventual killing of the vicar--"Mann" doesn't want any distractions or rivals for attention.

*Furthermore, although Mann does convert some locals to his way of thinking, the vibe I get is that most of his followers are actually Americans who have moved to Moonwell. I'm not even sure how mass importation of foreigners, even white, English-speaking Christians who won't raise so many hackles, is supposed to work--in order to get a British job visa, an American needs a job offer from a British employer and must meet a bunch of other requirements. And although those are the current rules, Britain in the 1980s was tightening its immigration control, not loosening them. Here's more. If one of the local skeptics complained and was told they had valid tourist visas that would make more sense, but it seems they're living in the town, getting jobs, etc. rather than staying in the local hotel. Tourist visas specifically bar working or drawing on public funds, although the willingness of a couple of Mann's followers to teach for free at the school is a convenient workaround.

It would make much more sense that the majority of his followers are Britons from the town--youth bored with formal Anglicanism, conservatives who objected to the vicar preaching against the nuclear base, people feeling guilty about sins they'd committed (one of his converts is a girl who confesses to stealing from her employer, for example) attracted to the notion of forgiveness, spiritual-seeker types, or bored small-town people just looking for something new and interesting. Rather than leading an army of outsiders, Mann is a charismatic cult leader type who, despite being a foreigner and coming from a religious tradition the villagers find strange, is able to sway most of the people of the town to his side anyway. That would make him more sinister, not less. And the fact the villagers who don't go along with Mann, be they liberal Christians like the vicar or irreligious people, become pariahs so suddenly might crank up the horror even further--it'd be like Jews in early Nazi Germany before the killing starts suddenly finding most of their Gentile friends either don't like them anymore or are afraid to associate with them.

This is how I would have done the book. Obviously I'm not going to try to tread on another author's turf so blatantly by trying to write "Matthew W. Quinn's The Hungry Moon" or something with the serial numbers filed off in a more subtle fashion, nor am I going to write a "How I Would Have Done It" fan-fic like I did for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I don't have the knowledge of 1980s Britain, nor do I have the time with my own things to work on. Still, this was a fun thought exercise. :)

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