Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spoilers Welcome?

I finally got around to reading John D. MacDonald’s vintage SF novel THE GIRL, THE GOLD WATCH, AND EVERYTHING (my curiosity spurred by Spider Robinson’s LADY SLINGS THE BOOZE, in which the villain possesses a similar time-freezing device). It occurred to me that this is one of those works it’s impossible for most people to experience the way the original audience did. Nowadays almost anybody who picks up this novel knows the gold watch stops time for the user, not least because the back cover blurb gives away the secret. I doubt the first edition back in the early 1960s had a similar spoilery blurb. The truth about the watch would have come as a surprise—one that isn’t revealed until exactly the middle of the book!

Likewise, everybody knows Count Dracula is a vampire. In 1897, though, before the Count’s name became synonymous with vampirism, Stoker’s first readers wouldn’t necessarily have known. True, the reviews gave away the secret, but not all book buyers read reviews. Those who approached the story “cold” would have shared the suspense of Jonathan Harker’s bewilderment and dawning horror in the first couple of chapters. Today the names “Jekyll and Hyde” mark a universally recognized shorthand phrase for a divided personality. Every film of Stevenson’s book that I’ve seen assumes from the beginning that the viewer knows Mr. Hyde is Dr. Jekyll’s alter ego and shows us the dramatic scene of his potion-induced transformation. The original, though, has a long build-up to the climactic revelation; we don’t learn the truth until near the end of the story. FRANKENSTEIN has a frame story from the viewpoint of an arctic explorer who has no idea what the dying Victor Frankenstein is doing in the frozen north or who the grotesque figure he's pursuing is. Presumably Mary Shelley’s original readers would have been in the dark on these points, too.

Lots of “spoilers” for classic literature float freely in the popular culture ether. You don’t have to read or watch Shakespeare to know Romeo and Juliet die in the end. Even people who’ve never seen CITIZEN KANE know Rosebud is a sled.

Do modern audiences lose something in reading or viewing a classic work with foreknowledge not available to the original naïve audience? Or does the fun of savoring the clues planted by the author, with full awareness of what they’re pointing to, make up for the absence of surprise? These are two different kinds of reading (or viewing) pleasure. As far as newly released works are concerned, some readers and viewers don’t mind spoilers. I’m one of those (within reason—I don’t want to know the murderer in advance the first time I read a mystery). On the other end of the spectrum, someone I know prefers not to read reviews or even jacket copy, wanting to approach a book with as few preconceptions as possible. I always read the cover copy and often seek out reviews, even for a book I know I’ll like because it’s by a favorite author. I’ve come across online comments about fans of the TV series GAME OF THRONES who get upset if exposed to spoilers about upcoming plot points, while others reply with some exasperation that these details have been available in the books for several years now. Is there a statute of limitations on spoiler warnings?

Cartoon I saw somewhere, ages ago: One spouse is reading THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH in bed. Other spouse: “The Allies win. Now turn off the light.”

In other news, researchers in the UK have produced artificially cultured blood, grown from stem cells, ready to be tested on patients. One step closer to the “TruBlood” product that makes it possible for vampires to live openly among us, as they do in the Sookie Stackhouse series and many other fictional universes:

Scientists to Test Artificial Blood

As that series demonstrates, the mere fact that vampires can get along without preying on innocent victims doesn’t mean social interaction between living and undead will automatically become friendly. Lots of adjustments are required, leading to an abundance of story complications.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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