Monday, April 30, 2007

Journey to the Edge of Nowhere, Part II: Five Million Years to Earl


The idea of going back to Leaf Rapids had been simmering at the back of my mind for years. My parents had done it in the early nineties, and they reported that the town, while still reasonably lively, had much diminished in the years since we’d left. Churchill Place, the crescent where our home had been, had been bulldozed, erased; so already there was one memory I could never physically recapture. And Leaf Rapids made national news more than once in the eighties and nineties when it was threatened by forest fires; one such blaze had killed several firefighters defending the town. The population kept shrinking; Ruttan Mine, which had prompted the town’s creation in the first place back in the early 70s, was being gradually abandoned, and without the mine to fuel Leaf Rapids’ economy, it threatened to become a ghost town. There were only 500 people left.

I had to go back before there was no one left at all – before this tiny outpost of humanity slid off the edge of nowhere and into the abyss of ill-remembered history.

So with a little trepidation – what kind of a holiday was a 19 hour drive to a nowhere town in northern Manitoba? – I asked Sylvia if she were up to the trip. I should have remembered that Sylvia likes adventure of all kinds, even unconventional ones; she said yes, and even looked forward to the journey.

I borrowed a couple of maps and a cooler from my parents, some camping gear from Sean, and loaded up the car with all the supplies I thought we’d need for our trek.

We left Edmonton on a sunny afternoon, CDs and maps at the ready. And as we journeyed together, travelling northwest into the future at that universal constant of one second per second, my thoughts sped backward at far greater speed…

Leaf Rapids’ movie theatre, like almost every other business in the little town, was housed in the Town Centre. It backed onto the stage of the school gymnasium, where I’d played the Wizard of Garbage in a school play on littering (a role won by draw – I was thrilled).
During the school year, the theatre owners screened free movies at lunch hour for the children. I don’t know how they did it, but they brought in movie serials from the 40s, replicating the moviegoing experience of generations long past. And there were double features, including a double-bill that would sear science fiction into my psyche forever: When Worlds Collide and War of the Worlds, both pretty intense films for a kid…

…but nothing, nothing compared to the horror that was Hammer Studio’s Five Million Years to Earth.

More properly known as Quatermass and the Pit, Five Million Years to Earth is the third of a series of British films detailing the exploits of an intrepid, eccentric rocket scientist. In this adventure, Quatermass is brought in to investigate a strange artifact uncovered during the expansion of a subway line in London. It’s an alien ship, filled with strange, insect-like corpses. And before the end of the film, the very nature of human identity will be forever changed, in ways utterly rational and utterly terrifying.

It’s vintage Hammer, a film of steadily mounting dread. And it was too much for the seven or eight year old boy I was. As the film approached its climax, the heroes fighting to stop a devastating psychic storm that threatened to destroy the world, a demon of our own making rose to put an end to us all, and I ran screaming from the theatre all the way home.

As an adult, I can appreciate the film for its intelligence and daring, overlooking the cheap special effects and sets. The low budget certainly didn’t interfere in my belief in the events of the film; I had nightmares for years.

One of those nightmares still gives me chills. In it, I’m having a run of the mill dream, which is interrupted by the steady thump-thump of a beating heart, presumably my own. I then tell the other occupants of the dream that my “nightmare alert” is going off, and that I have to wake up. I know what’s coming. Background details of the precursor dream fade away, the other people fading out last, leaving me in a sterile white void; and as the heartbeat grows louder and louder,
I start to cry, trying to wake myself up, but it’s no use.

I find myself on the path that led from our townhouse to the Town Centre, the path I followed to school and back every day. But it’s nighttime, and I can barely see the stars, for the woods have grown thick, branches folding inward, like bony fingers slowly descending to capture and crush little boys. I start to run, my beating heart so loud it’s painful, but I can’t wake up, not until events play themselves out.

I run as fast as I can, knowing that if I reach the Town Centre I’ll be safe, but the pathway goes on and on and then I feel the rumbling from deep within the earth, below and just behind me. A giant green hand erupts from the depths, and I can see it without turning, the yellowed nails, the closing fingers, the hairy wrist; and then it grabs me and pulls me all the way down to hell, and I can’t wake up until I see the hole above me closing forever.

Eventually I managed to endure this dream without running in tears to my parents, but it took awhile.

Of course, these days I delight in the grim atmosphere of Five Million Years to Earth, and the scientific literacy of the picture fills me with hope rather than horror. For better or worse, it influenced my development as a neurotic movie/sf geek. The film shaped me, just as Leaf Rapids shaped me, just as every moment in time shapes the course of our personal evolution, leading to that ephemeral moment we call the now.

And in the now that was then, Sylvia and I reached the first milestone of our journey, the first of two border towns on our route: Lloydminster, where we stopped at Tim Horton’s for refreshments. I took a moment to absorb how the place had changed since I’d last been there. It seemed to me that all North American cities looked much the same now, with the same restaurant chains and hardware stores, the same strip mall city planning, the same architecture.
I wondered if Leaf Rapids, even in its magnificent isolation, could have possibly remained untouched by the progress of market conformity. Could a trip like this end in anything but disappointment?

The child I was trying to recapture, lost in the inexorably receding wave of time, might as well have been five million years away as the few thousand kilometres we would soon cover. Chasing after a boy who no longer existed was probably a fool’s errand. Probably.

But we were going to find out in person. We headed east on the Yellowhead, the sun at our backs, slowly falling to earth, just as it would for another five thousand times a million years, once a day, heedless of the concerns of its human children, its light shining as brightly on the edge of nowhere as it did anywhere else, blind to prejudice, blind to history, blind to the fears its nightly absence inspired in little boys.

Read Part III. 

8 comments:

BLaZe said...

Earl,

Only you could post a long-awaited trip report that spends all of it's length dicussing a movie no one has seen and only gets to Lloydminster... sigh... I guess I'll wait somemore...

Earl J. Woods said...

Hey, lots of people have seen Five Million Years to Earth! Don't worry, in the next update I might get us through Saskatchewan...

Earl's brother. said...

The home in which I spent the first three years of my life was demolished?

I'm honestly a bit sad right now, as part of me wanted to see it someday. = (

Anonymous said...

Great post, Babe! I look forward to reading more. It is so eloquently written . I hope that little boy no longer suffers those nightmares. That will break my heart.......

Syl

Anonymous said...

Interesting and provocative post! And, if anything, you've provided the needed capstone to the mausoleum of an idea that started to wither and die the moment I started thinking about it. That's a good thing; the idea sucked, and now I don't have to worry about it any more.

"Quatermass and the Pit" is quite a flashback. Really, anyone who was interested in science fiction before Star Wars (or born before it) might chance to see it. I've never sat through the whole thing, although it's as good example of any of the really creative, creepy psychosocially-founded SF that came out of Britain before Dr. Who turned it into pap and Moonraker turned it into awkward, expensive comedy.

As to my idea, best left untouched now: construction has been going at full speed for the rapid rail transit extensions in Vancouver. One of the proposed new extensions may finally bring a train out towards our part of town. For a long time, the project was to be called the "Spirit" line, which got a cold reception from the public. I think it's going to be the "Evergreen" line, which if less imaginative, is a more palatable choice.

Anyway, I was thinking that it would be a thrilling adventure story, if during the construction of the Spirit Line, some kind of ancient artefact were unwittingly uncovered, so that anyone who fell into its sphere of influence would go mad: first construction workers, then trainloads of commuters. Having sat through interminable legs of the journey on the West Coast Express, where the view out the window is astonishingly beautiful, yet the conversations of the occupants are almost invariably as loud and incessant as they are vapid (the biggest problem in my view with public transit is that one is obliged to ride with the public), the idea that all of the passengers would become lunatics has some appeal to me.

The people, of course, wouldn't realise that they were mad. They would be seeing apparitions that they would react to, horrible creatures from another reality. But to us, the commuters would just seem psychotic and dangerously delusional. The hero character would have to undertake a perilous and mystical journey to the alternate horror dimension, accessed through the use of the artefact as a portal to the insane world which is the creatures' origin. See? The Spirit Line would actually be haunted.

Well, there were two problems that this story would have to overcome to be any good. One of them is that it seems to be more or less a rehash of the plot to Quatermass and the Pit. I didn't make the connection until now. Quatermass seems to me to be quintessentially British, yet your recap of the story seems to have stripped some of that culturalism away. You saw the horror, where I remember the European accents and sensibilities.

The second problem, is that my idea definitely suffers from "Seen That Already" Syndrome. Of course, as Wiki suggests, the Quatermass stories were inspirations to auteurs like Steven King and John Carpenter, whose stories have an entertainment value that is debateable (some good, some not so much), but whose originality in material was what I would call low. So many stories we see and read now are repackaged versions of plots and devices that have been used before.

There is something very, very attractive, though, a totally compelling need for us to retell those stories of horror, of contact with the gods of the forgotten, ancient Earth, and to embellish them with glitzy, showy effects. Space aliens are as good an example as any. While there are many sub-types of horror aliens, at least in North America we can reduce them into two basic groups: little grey men with big heads and black almond-shaped eyes, and insectoid monsters with razor-sharp teeth.

People have been claiming to see the so-called "Greys" for a very long time, but it wasn't until the media started paying attention that larger segments of the general public would become obsessed with them. I would think that the abduction story of Betty and Barney Hill was perhaps a turning point in the 1960's, in terms of the frequency and urgency that this type of story has been recounted. Were racial factors involved that caused the media to pay attention to Betty and Barney Hill? Was the Hill's experience connected to the burgeoning of popular television science fiction shows? Whatever the reason, the Hill's abduction story has been the catalyst for pop culture events ranging from "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" to seemingly every third episode of the "X-Files" or any of its imitators.

Then, there's the ferocious insectoid alien, made especially popluar in the "Alien" movies. The original movie came out in what? 1979? In my old character design class, if I asked my young students to draw out a fierce alien, they would almost invariably come up the insectoid "Xenomorph". Student demo reels all over North America seem incomplete unless they have a nasty Xenomorph lurking. Still, the design isn't a new one. The idea of the Xenomorph was borrowed/ripped off from many other similar sources, as were the visual designs. H.P. Lovecraft comes to mind as perhaps the greatest modern font of this lore, although even he had his own sources to work from. Some say he was influenced by his own nightmares, other suggest that he was especially in tune with his own subconscious as well as the collective soul of the time. Lovecraft was, to my mind, preternaturally aware of the darker aspects of American culture and paranormal zeitgeist.

It makes me think that there must have been gatherings of pre-Industrial peoples, maybe in caves, maybe in huts or longhouses, gathering around the fire to tell scary stories, or to try to explain the lights in the sky and the sudden death of the local livestock. They would scratch out lengthy runways in the Incan highlands and draw inscrutable pictograms of beings that looked human but weren't, somehow. I know that in my deepest nightmares, it is these beings that I see but vainly struggle to comprehend in the most fundamental of ways. Fear comes from not knowing, and even if the galaxy is populated with sentient and advanced beings, it is deeply chilling to think that they might care absolutely not one bit about our culture and civilization: we are in fact alone in the Universe, alone in a crowd.

So back to Seen-That-Before. Telling these stories lends them a certain authenticity, and re-telling them lends the storyteller some cultural credit. But re-hashing this stuff over and over again until even our children see this stuff on TV every day, play video games that depict these horrors with typical first-person-shooter casual brutality, and have access to sweet gummy candy treats in the shape of horror icons, well, then I think the well has run dry in terms of story-telling value.

Quatermass was important in its time, but now we've flayed it to death. My Spirit Line concept would be a final nail in the coffin, if the lid weren't already crammed full of nails as it is, with nails awkwardly pounded into the heads of the nails below them for good measure. So, Earl, thank you for sharing this part of your journey. It's not so much a geographical adventure as a deeply personal one, with markers along the path that only you can see. At least you're describing them to us, even though some of the points along your path might mean one thing to you, and yet repesent a completely different concept to your readers.

AlienwareSucks said...

I had something to say; emotional, heartfelt, deep, personal and real. And then I read the last comment and it sucked the life right out of me.

Sorry, don't mean to be rude (I rarely do, though I often am) but that really is what happened. Your story evoked something in me, and my anal, completist nature forced me to read that 5th comment, and all that honesty was lost.

I'm surprisingly bitter about this. Perhaps I should seek therapy.

Earl J. Woods said...

I thought anonymous' commentary was fascinating, personally - though sometimes analysis has the effect alienwaresucks describes on the life of a work. I certainly haven't looked at Star Wars the same way after reading David Brin's essays on the subject. That doesn't mean you shouldn't seek therapy, though. :-)

As for the Spirit Line story - there are only so many basic plots. Treading the same ground, or following the same tracks, is inevitable. What counts is what you bring to the story - your own personal spin on what the journey reveals. Romeo and Juliet never gets old, because there are so many ways to tell stories about forbidden love.

I'd buy a novel about the Spirit Line, no questions asked, just as I buy pretty much every post-nuclear armageddon novel I can find, all the time travel stories, etc.

AlienwareSucks said...

In the cool light of a new day, I see my reaction as overly rude, even for me. I apologize for that, I was in a weird place last night after a long week of work.