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Peter Von Greenaway – The Medusa Touch

Posted by demonik on August 12, 2007

Peter Von Greenaway – The Medusa Touch (Panther, 1975: Gollancz 1973)


John Morlar, a novelist, is brutally battered almost to death in his London flat. Inspector Cherry seeks clues interviewing Morlar’s psychiatrist and reading Morlar’s books and journals. But instead of pointers to the would-be killer’s identity, Cherry begins to discover the terrifying truth behind a series of hitherto unexplained disasters. The apocalyptic crash of a Jumbo jet into a London skyscraper … the tragic failure of an American moon shop … the mysterious loss of a submarine with all hands – these and many other apparently unconnected catastrophes turn out to have Morlar as their common focus. But how can one man create such destruction?

And Where Will He Strike Next?

“I’m the man who has learned to invoke disaster”

Basis for the gloomy film of same name starring Richard Burton as the bandaged tragedy controller.

Inspector Cherry is investigating what appears to be the attempted murder of novelist John Morlar. He’s been battered so violently with a bust of Napoleon that he no longer has a face and the doctor even pronounced him dead. While Morlar is fighting for his life – or is it his death? – in an oxygen tent, Cherry follows his leads. His first port of call is Morlar’s psychiatrist, Zonfeld, whose name recurs in the author’s splenetic journal. Meanwhile, the TV gives obsessive round the clock coverage to a lunar disaster and an air-crash. Cherry gets the bizarre feeling that these have some bearing on his case and can’t help thinking that his sergeant’s throwaway remark – “The World’s falling apart” – has great significance.

Cherry progresses to Covent Garden to Mr. Townley, publisher of Morlar’s novels as well as such literary gems as Virginia Ruislip’s I Was Tutankhamen’s Mistress. Morlar sold well until his fourth novel, an all-too realistic depiction of a Fascist Britain. Townley tells Cherry “His last four novels weren’t just thrillers – they were terrifying.” His journals – Von Greenaway quotes from them extensively – suggest that the guy is a one-man Sex Pistols, railing against the aspirations of the middle classes, pop stars, Liberals, Nazi’s, Priests … all self-deluded, no difference between the lot of them.“The whole bloody country is under sedation, The Archers, Librium, Coronation Street, funny men with big heads and little shorts looking for goals, opinion polls, Top Twenty, methahexadryne …. G. B. is drugged to the eyeballs and doesn’t know it.”

…. his parents, the Church of England, the army, chorus girls, Hackney (especially Mare Street), “contemptible satirists”, the import-export industry, John Buchan, “experts”, Broadstairs, cars (”excrescences from the very anus of technology”), the left, the right, Sesame Street, The Imperial War Museum (”Arse-holes”), the judicial system …

God, but you can’t help but admire Morlar his all-consuming, phenomenal rage – from afar, at least. Those who come into his orbit have to watch their step as they have a nasty habit of dying in mysterious circumstances. From his controlled rants at Zonfeld we learn that he truly believes his unasked for telekinetic talent destroyed his nanny, his parents, a sadistic bully of a teacher and a number of pupils at his school,. No suspicion ever fell on him, but he was always in the vicinity when the tragedies occurred. In the case of his parents, they were forced over a cliff when their parked car rolled toward them under its own volition, after which his aunt adopted him – “she was the only creature I ever came near to loving” – and he had a relatively quiet time of it until Mr. Copley the history teacher dared to pick on him for staring out of the window during one of his ghastly lessons (the ‘leaves’ incident in the film). “Thinking of him now I can’t imagine a more dashing colonel commanding a frilly regiment of the gay liberation front” sneers Morlar. And so it goes on. The list of Morlar’s victims grow with his frustration and disillusion: his army regiment, a pompous Tory-ite judge (prior to his novelist incarnation, he’s a lawyer until he commits career suicide), his wife and her lover – and that’s just him warming up. As he approaches his fiftieth birthday, he pays his first visit to Zonfeld and it acts as a catalyst. In the face of the psychiatrist’s initial disbelief in his master of disaster demeanor, Morlar decides some spectacular demonstrations are called for. Which is how a jumbo jet comes to crash into Centre Point.

Once Morlar has developed a taste for staging spectacular proof of his power, the disasters pile up and, as he lies all but dead in hospital, he prepares to take the battle to God. The Dean of St. Pauls, an abhorrent publicity junkie, has launched a crusade against the very evil he doesn’t believe in and a forthcoming Rally is to be launched from the Cathedral. Cherry, Duff and their boss try to persuade the old fool of Morlar’s intentions, so the Dean gets onto his buddies in the media and tips them off that he’s going to perform an exorcism on this strange novelist chappie. That doesn’t cheer Morlar up one bit.

The novel ends in a riot of falling masonry and takes it’s leave on a very unpleasant final note.

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