Candescent Blooms could hardly have been better chosen as a title for this latest collection from Andrew Hook (Frequencies of Existence, Human Maps). Whilst, like many of his previous fictions, still firmly rooted in the elusive realm of slipstream, these dazzling stories reimagine the all too brief lives--and more pertinently, the deaths--of 13 Hollywood luminaries, from Marilyn Monroe to Jean Harlow, and from Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle to James Dean. There is a reason we call such performers 'stars', particularly in relation to film. They are actors whose fame, for a time at least, burned brightly; whose glamorous and opulent lifestyles imprinted themselves on the collective consciousness of movie fans across the world. This was true also in a literal sense, with the names of many stars "up in lights" to promote the movies they headlined. To be a 'star' meant to live in a rarefied, dreamlike world, unattainable to mere mortals. In these stories, Hook not only riffs on the notion of fame as a form of radiance, but, through the imagined memories, dreams and aspirations of his subjects, reveals the terrible price exacted upon them by their craving for stardom.
That craving, whether for sex, alcohol, drugs, wealth, power, or simply the vindication that one matters, is an impulse shared by all the protagonists, and most are undone by a failure to distinguish between the fickle and fleeting pleasures of fame's trappings, and those things that give meaning to a life. Some--Carole Lombard, Jayne Mansfield--at least get to taste the latter, before the abrupt curtailment of their lives. The surreal and absurd nature of 'stardom,' particularly as it relates to iconic figures like Dean, Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, clearly fascinates Hook. In an almost throwaway sentence, Hook cites the influence of JG Ballard when, in 'The Jayne Mansfield Nuclear Project' (about as Ballardian a story title you can get outside Ballard), the narrator comments on Mansfield's breasts as being like "power plants, fuelling her career". He tells us that "She would never know Ballard would declare they loomed across the horizon of popular consciousness." The risk of pretentiousness is swiftly undercut by the assertion that Jayne "did know there was nothing shameful in being a sex symbol." For all that the stories expose the shallowness and greed of these characters, Hook never judges them, never sneers at their weakness or self-delusion, never condemns their desire to burn brightly in the firmament.
Not all of those who feature in the stories are as well know as Dean or Monroe, and the truth behind their deaths continues to be obsured by a slippery mix of gossip, misinformation and mythmaking. Hook's intention with these tales is less about separating truth from myth, than it is about distilling the essence of these characters and allowing them to speak for themselves, most often from beyond the grave. 'Buckle Up,' for example, begins with Roscoe Arbuckle, in the midst of the heart attack that killed him, remembering "the best day of his life", which also happens to be his last. The narrative shifts abruptly to the scandal that effectively ended his career, the alleged rape of Virginia Rappe, for which Arbuckle was tried three times and eventually acquitted. Hook's interest is not so much in vindicating Arbuckle as in offering an impressionistic account his own memories of childhood bullying and his rise to fame, offset against the rumours, lies and lurid accounts played out in the press throughout the trials. Thus taunts about "fatty bum bum" and the 'Prince of Whales", are juxtaposed alongside "16 uses for a Coca-Cola Bottle" (the latter being the item with which Arbuckle had allegedly raped Rappe), which the writer proceeds to list. The actual truth of Rappe's death - from Perotinitis caused by a ruptured bladder--was lost in the blizzard of the career-ending scandal.
The opening story, 'H is for Hollywoodland', featuring the almost forgotten actress Peg Entwistle--born, co-incidentally, just 8 miles east along the M4 in Port Talbot--serves as a hallucinatory introduction to the dramatis personae in the tales that follow. Entwistle became a minor star on Broadway in the 1920s. She went to Hollywood and made her only film, Thirteen Women, in 1932, but her movie career failed to take off. She took her own life by jumping off the H in the Hollywoodland sign. At the beginning of the story, headed, '45ft,' we find Entwistle asking herself "How did I get (up) here?", a line that echoes the question posed by in Talking Heads' seminal 1980 hit 'Once in a Lifetime.' Fame, it seems, is as elusive for Peg, as the beautiful house and wife, and the large automobile were for the sceptical narrator of Byrne's song. Each successive section of the story offers a fleeting glimpse--as the world (and time) rushes by in her fall--of who she might have been, of what she might have achieved if she had been other than who she was. Instead of "P.E. an actress about to lose", perhaps in 1926 at 40ft, Rudolph Valentino or a witness, at 36ft to Arbuckle's fateful afternoon in the St Francis Hotel; maybe, in 1942 and 24ft above the ground, she is Carole Lombard, appearing in her own real life disaster movie (the actress died in a plane crash), or in 1959 with 16ft to go to impact, playing Lois Lane to George Reeves' Superman, or even better, remembering in 1962 and a mere 12ft from death, having starred in Some Like it Hot. It's a brilliant conceit, with each section giving us a premonitory snapshot of what is to come.
Hook's primary obsession is with drawing back the veil to reveal what lies behind the candescent glow of fame and adulation. And what we find are constructs, creatures who in some sense, can be seen as Frankenstein analogues, built up out of stolen components: perfect blue eyes from here, a radiant smile from there; an idealised beauty, a manufactured sex appeal, a fraudulent heroism, a wholesomeness that that is all artifice. Thus, in 'Sarcoline', Grace Kelly wants "nothing tawdry in her life", but casually lists her affairs with William Holden, Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby and Clark Gable among others. Later, after a scene in which she fucks Ray Milland, she self-pityingly describes the subsequent fall out in which gossip columnist Hedda Hopper calls her a homewrecker and nymphomaniac. The transactional nature of her marriage to Prince Rainer is described thus: "My Prince has allowed MGM to film our wedding in exchange for ending my seven year movie contract." Her fairy tale life is a dream from which she can't wake up, even in death.
In Hollywoodland, Kelly, like Monroe or Dean or Valentino, is a 'character', a fictionalised representation of someone whose flesh and blood existence was but an inferior model, enhanced and made immortal through the power of the silver screen. Except that beneath their glowing skin, these characters remained human, and as such were susceptible to human foibles and weaknesses. Thus, in 'Honeypot', we're told that Valentino "was a young man living daily the dream of millions of other men" and that despite this he "was one who was very unhappy." Perhaps that unhappiness is a manifestation of his conflicted sexuality--in the story Hook has Valentinio admit "I am a closet homosexual", whereas in reality he denied that he was ever attracted to men. Early on, after surgery, he mentions an uncertainty about his condition (whether he will live or die), but this uncertainty seems also to exemplify the unstable nature of his existence, neither straight nor gay, adored by women, reviled by men, craving an authenticity that seems unattainable. Jean Harlow adored by legions of fans, yearns to play the kind of serious, dramatic roles denied the girl known as 'The Baby', perceived to be suited only to comedic parts. A similar desire seems to haunt Carole Lombard. James Dean imagines himself in a rock and roll combo, The Easy Flirtations, alongside Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, "Three eligible bachelors who had yet to find time to commit to a single woman." Time, of course, as the story reminds us, is precisely what Dean didn't have. George Reeves begins on a high with Gone with the Wind, but is misrepresented in the credits. It's a slog to show off his versatality but in the public eye he can only be Superman, and the only way to escape that role, as Clark Kent observes, is to catch a speeding bullet.
My favourite of the stories is 'Memories of Olive', concerning the silent film star Olive Thomas. It unravels as a series of memories (some actual, others imagined) that begin with the exclamation 'Oh, my God!', the very words she uttered on finding she had poisoned herself (with a potion her husband used to treat his syphillis). The cry serves as a refrain uttered throughout the story whenever she's confronted by extraordinary event--the death of her father, the realisation at 16 that she has just 9 years left, posing for a topless portrait, being in the movies, and the horror of that something (the poison) "in my mouth". Hook allows Olive to challenge the "misinformation disseminated throughout the silent movie era ... that everyone spoke in title cards and there was no colour in our lives," stating that rather than rising "ashen grey" from her mother's womb clutching a title card emblazoned with the cry "Wah!" she was born with "violet-blue eyes" clinging to her mother's "pale pink breast". And yet, having issued a caution to the reader, Olive uses title cards to illustrate and emphasise key events, such as noting the need for one to announce her engagment, "surely a title card here?", to highlight her desirability, "she was chased and chaste", or to signal relationship difficulties--"their marriage is on the rocks." Later, she imagines a conversation with the writer of The Flapper, her biggest movie, confessing her desire to live only in the present. The writer responds that her movies, being a kind of time travel, offer precisely that permanent presence. But Olive rejects the notion, pointing out they will be lost because of the combustible nature of nitrate film. "You're making this up," the writer insists, "we never had these conversations." And of course, Olive has previously warned us of her own unreliability. Beneath the narrative playfulness there's an undeniable sadness here, particularly in the final lines as Olive lies dying, dreaming of an unrealised production, the script of which she has memorised, a script "for the first talkie I will never make."
There are no false notes in the collection, with each of the stories illuminating their subject's encounter--some much briefer than others--with the immortality represented by movie stardom. Although Candescent Blooms perhaps owes something to David Thomson's New Biographical Dictionary of Film and to Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, it is nevertheless unique, a dazzling and dreamlike venture into fictional biography, one that is highly entertaining while at the same time showing extraordinary compassion for its subjects.
Candescent Blooms (2022), is available from Salt.