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Tooth and Claw

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine returned from the Cannes Film Festival. She had some news.

‘You’ve inspired a movie,’ she told me.

‘What?’

‘An article you wrote has inspired a movie.’

The explanation was a little more mundane than I might have hoped. So I wasn’t the hottest new femme fatale, muse of movie directors and darling of Hollywood moguls. I disguised fading excitement with a cunning faux-yawn. ‘What movie was that then?’

‘It’s about a serial killer.’ She must have seen my face fall. ‘It won a prize,’ she consoled.

Later that summer I went to meet the director. I had prepared myself for an encounter with a bit of an oddball. But Jaime Rosales – a quiet 33- year-old from Barcelona – wasn’t at all what I had expected. And nor was his film. Forget dead family cats and oddly stocked fridges. Nothing much happened except a dinner party and the occasional random, off camera killing. What had inspired Rosales, it turned out, was a review I had written of a book that, the last time I went out to buy it, was shelved in the ‘Biology’ section of the shop.

It could equally well have been shelved under ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Drama’ or ‘Thrillers’. The Red Hourglass, a debut volume by a writer called Gordon Grice, explores a fundamental premise.

‘We want the world to be an ordered room,’ its author writes, ‘but in the corner there hangs an untidy web.’ Within lurks ‘an irreducible mystery, a motiveless evil in Nature’. This was the idea that had captured the imagination of the movie director. And that was the idea that had trapped me, too, the first time I came across the book. I had picked it up from a literary editor’s review pile and started to leaf, distractedly, through it. Half an hour later, I was sitting on the floor, transfixed.

Grice has written seven essays on the lives of predatory creatures – mostly creepy crawly ones,

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A couple of years ago, a friend of mine returned from the Cannes Film Festival. She had some news.

‘You’ve inspired a movie,’ she told me.

‘What?’

‘An article you wrote has inspired a movie.’

The explanation was a little more mundane than I might have hoped. So I wasn’t the hottest new femme fatale, muse of movie directors and darling of Hollywood moguls. I disguised fading excitement with a cunning faux-yawn. ‘What movie was that then?’ ‘It’s about a serial killer.’ She must have seen my face fall. ‘It won a prize,’ she consoled. Later that summer I went to meet the director. I had prepared myself for an encounter with a bit of an oddball. But Jaime Rosales – a quiet 33- year-old from Barcelona – wasn’t at all what I had expected. And nor was his film. Forget dead family cats and oddly stocked fridges. Nothing much happened except a dinner party and the occasional random, off camera killing. What had inspired Rosales, it turned out, was a review I had written of a book that, the last time I went out to buy it, was shelved in the ‘Biology’ section of the shop. It could equally well have been shelved under ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Drama’ or ‘Thrillers’. The Red Hourglass, a debut volume by a writer called Gordon Grice, explores a fundamental premise. ‘We want the world to be an ordered room,’ its author writes, ‘but in the corner there hangs an untidy web.’ Within lurks ‘an irreducible mystery, a motiveless evil in Nature’. This was the idea that had captured the imagination of the movie director. And that was the idea that had trapped me, too, the first time I came across the book. I had picked it up from a literary editor’s review pile and started to leaf, distractedly, through it. Half an hour later, I was sitting on the floor, transfixed. Grice has written seven essays on the lives of predatory creatures – mostly creepy crawly ones, though the rattlesnake and (perhaps surprisingly) the pig are also included. But the collection takes its title from the black widow spider, his first fascination:
As a boy I used to lift the iron lids that guarded underground water meters and there in the darkness of the meter wells I would often see something round as a flensed human skull, glinting like chipped obsidian, scarred with a pair of crimson triangles that touched each other to form an hourglass: the widow as she looks in shadow. A quick stir with a stick would trap her for a few seconds in her own web, long enough for me to catch her in a jar.
This is a book to thrill anyone who would hold that jar up to the light, who would gaze with a morbid fascination, with an appalled respect. It is a book for anyone who has ever lain down in the grass, stared into the secrets of all things that scuttle, inch, crawl and pounce. It is a book for anyone who understands the glory of gladiatorial combat; who knows why the heart soars when the bull gores the matador. If you don’t respond to this viscerally, then don’t bother reading it. But if you feel your instincts flicker, then go out and get this book at once. Combining the exquisite prose of a literary stylist with the flinty curiosity of a Victorian naturalist and the idle cruelty of a child, Grice leads the reader out into a wilderness where man is no longer supreme, and then abandons him there. This is a world in which a tiny band of spiders can evacuate every living occupant from a building, where snake venom can dissolve and digest human flesh, where killers possess toxins so lethal they challenge our notions of a benevolent deity, where deadly dangers can lurk under a lavatory seat. ‘We arrogantly see non-human animals as innocents at play in nature’s temple,’ says Grice, ‘but cats kill for fun, wolves slaughter more than they can eat . . . many animals are just as intemperate and greedy as we are.’ With the chilling savagery of some scientific Caligula, Grice conducts his experiments. Like some mad, postmodern Gilbert White he deduces his theories. Having remarked, for instance, the similarities between human and pig – even ‘a human burned beyond his skin’s capacity to heal can be patched with living grafts of porcine hide, which does not sweat but will redden in the sun’ – he re-examines the folk wisdom of the late twentieth century that explains Jewish and Muslim taboos against pork as a precaution against parasites in the meat. A better explanation lies in the stony ground of Palestine, he suggests. There, human corpses shallowly buried in stony terrain would be sought out by the pig, ‘that devourer of human leavings’. Not the ‘stubby-legged, pink-skinned, heavy-bellied’ creature that we nowadays imagine, but ‘a bristling multitude, their jowls flecked with spittle, their tusks set at a slight gape for ready use’. To have then eaten these animals that had eaten a deceased relation would, he suggests, have felt something akin to cannibalism. This is a disturbing, compelling and utterly spellbinding book that warps the way you look at the world. No wonder the movie it inspired was a long way from Disney. Its tales of wanton destruction and the cruelty of fate hark back to the elemental models of classical literature and myth. Grice’s essays are little Aeschylean dramas. But the dramatis personae are all animals.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 7 © Rachel Campbell-Johnston 2005


About the contributor

Rachel Campbell-Johnston is the art and poetry critic for The Times.

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