18 November 2014

Basil King's Silent Unseen World

I'm not sure just why, but I've come to associate Basil King with the Christmas season. Perhaps it has something to do with my Church of England upbringing. An Anglican priest, this forgotten son of Charlottetown once led flocks in Halifax and Cambridge. It wasn't until failing eyesight brought early retirement that the reverend turned to writing novels. Given the his affliction, it seems an odd decision, though it's very much in keeping with what must surely rank as one of the strangest literary careers this or any other country has ever seen.

I've written here about King before, beginning with this post on the mystery and controversy surrounding his sixth novel, The Inner Shrine (1909), and his sudden elevation to bestsellerdom. He's one of those writers whose life is more interesting than his books, yet I find much more enjoyment reading his work than that of any Canadian contemporary, including his fellow Islander L.M. Montgomery.

Sacrilege, I know.

My favourite King book is The Abolishing of Death (1919). Very much an artifact of the Great War, it assured grief-stricken parents – Arthur Conan Doyle, for one – that communication with the fallen was possible. The reverend, who had neither child nor dog in the conflict, writes that the war dead live on in a psychedelic paradise he describes as "the new Heaven". Blown off limbs have grown back, disfigurement has been erased, and everyone looks simply marvellous.

Not exactly Anglican doctrine.

King had fallen under the spell of an attractive young woman, identified only as "Jennifer", through whom he became convinced he could communicate with those who had moved on to the new Heaven. One such soul, "a woman who had never been married, and in whom we supposed the earthly springs of maternity to have dried up, told him that she was now a mother."

Such joy!

As if a sign that he was on the right path, King's greatest commercial and critical triumph quickly followed with his script for Earthbound, a film  described in the November 1920 issue of Screenworld as "the highest achievement in the history of Motion Pictures."

Motion Picture News, September 1920
San Jose's Evening News was so entranced that it lost the ability to spell.
4 April 1921
Frederick Palmer, the Robert McKee of his day, praised Earthbound in his 1922 Palmer Plan Handbook:
"Earthbound," written by Basil King and produced by Goldwyn, has immortality as its theme – life after death. This is perhaps the most fascinating subject that ever engaged the attention of mankind – this greatest of all mysteries. And it will continue to be so until the mystery is solved. Out of the miseries of the late war arose a tremendous heart-hunger for more light – more definite knowledge concerning the hereafter. In response to this feeling such pictures as "Earthbound" were produced. Other photoplays dealing with the same subject but with less dramatic power followed in rapid succession.

That same year – 1922 – Palmer provided this synopsis in his Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
I include Frederick Palmer's dry description because Earthbound is a lost film, and there's no other synopsis so detailed. The movie ranks with A Daughter of the GodsLondon After Dark, Convention City and The Miracle Man as those I most want to see.

But I can't.

Not in this world.

So, I study images such as these:

And I hold out for a Christmas miracle.

Update: Earthbound found!

A bonus: American Robert Bullock was so inspired his movie-going experience that he composed this poem, which was later included in his self-published Voices of Silence (Los Angeles, 1921):

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  1. Those early films were pretty effective in looking ghostly.

  2. This was fascinating. I have to find King's novel. Years ago I read a book that is probably a knock off of King's called THE DIVINE EVENT (1920) by potboiler American writer Will Harben. He doesn't go into rapturous accounts of a "new Heaven" but is heavily influenced by the Spiritualist movement.

    On the opposite end of this massively popular movie and book are the anti-Spiritualists and their desire to expose the fake mediums who exploited the desperation of the grieving survivors of wartime. There is an excellent detective novel by Henry Kitchell Webser called GHOST GIRL (1913) predating King's bestseller that is one of the most angry indictments against fraudulent spiritualists. And of course Houdini was making headlines almost daily in his fight against the phoneys in the fortune telling and séance racket.

    1. Ghost Girl sounds like my kind of book, John. I was disappointed to discover that it's not available on Internet Archive. Couldn't find any used copies listed online either.

      Houdini is a true hero for his fight against the phoneys. I'm particularly interested in his work to expose Mina "Margery" Crandon, who was born and raised not far from where we live. Add fellow Canadian J. Gordon Whitehead, the McGill student who delivered those punches the week before his death, and I think you have the makings of a good mystery. For all I know it's already been written.