Phaedra’s Love, by Sarah Kane

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Warning: fruity themes.

Sarah Kane’s short 1996 play Phaedra’s Love is not a barrel of laughs, but it is derived from Seneca so nastiness is to be expected.  The setting is the modern era.  Fat lazy Hippolytus sprawls on a sofa, messily surrounded by underwear, sweet packets and electronic toys.  He masturbates into a sock, though he does point out later that those serving such personal use (including blowing his nose on them) are washed before putting them on his feet.  He has some standards.

He is clinically depressed, spending his time sitting around, his main leisure activities sex and watching TV.  He is able to find people willing to have sex with him because, while he is not particularly attractive, he is a member of the royal family which holds a certain cachet, though without fail they dislike him afterwards for his lack of connection to them; they feel used.  He is cynical about his position in the royal family and sees himself as without purpose.

The action is a surprisingly misogynistic for a woman playwright, depicting Phaedra’s unlikely unrequited love for her unlovely step-son (she says he thrills her but it is hard to believe).  He goes out of his way to say hurtful things to her in his contempt, daring her to hate him but even telling Phaedra he has had sex with her daughter Strophe is not enough to turn her away.

Phaedra has been on her own since Theseus, Hippolytus’s father and her husband, left on their wedding night after having sex with Strophe (as Hippolytus helpfully informs her), and she does not expect him back.  Eventually, overcome by Hippolytus’s indifference towards her, she kills herself, but as an act of revenge leaves a note accusing him of raping her, though their only sexual contact had been a consensual act of oral sex she had initiated and he had not been too bothered about.

Hippolytus falsely pleads guilty to rape in order to escape his ennui, and the crowd turns against him.  The incorrigible Hippolytus is visited in jail by a priest who tries to talk some sense into him.  Failing to convince Hippolytus, who scorns both God and the monarchy in forthright terms, the divine gets on his knees to provide the prisoner with oral sex.  That Hippolytus – despite appearances he must have something going for him.

Then Theseus arrives in disguise just in time to take retribution for his dead queen, first setting alight her funeral pyre (the staging of which must present a stiff challenge for the production manager).  As one might expect from its Senecan source material, it all ends badly, with Hippolytus murdered, Strophe raped and murdered by Theseus for defending Hippolytus, and Theseus cutting his own throat when he realises what he has done, not having recognised Strophe until too late.

Hippolytus’s gruesome end stretches credibility, assuming there is any left.  He is half-strangled, castrated by the crowd (his genitals tossed onto a barbecue, thrown about, and given to a dog), his torso cut open by Theseus, disemboweled and his innards also chucked onto the barbecue.  One might expect death to follow swiftly, yet he lives long enough for Theseus to kill himself, have a couple of policemen talk about him, and for him to make a smart comment before expiring.  It feels ludicrous, and presumably is intended to in some gory Brechtian manner.

The play appeared the same year Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, consciously uncoupled: it premiered in May 1996 and the royal couple’s divorce was finalised in the August.  Perhaps Kane was poking fun at the sexual shenanigans that occurred among our royals, minus the bloodletting.  Hippolytus wonders what the point of his royal family is, as we might wonder about ours.


Golem 100, by Alfred Bester

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Theodore Bester’s 1980 chat-filled hybrid science fiction/occult novel Golem100 is set in 2175 in ‘The Guff’, part of the Northeast Corridor, or ‘Northeast slum’ as it should be more accurately described.  The Guff is New York and the future is dystopian, with corporations taking over the functions of government and the PLO in charge of organised crime.  To stave off their ennui, a ‘hive’ of well-to-do ladies led by Regina (the queen) get together and for their amusement decide to employ a ritual designed to summon the Devil, not thinking it will have any effect.  Unfortunately they succeed in their efforts, though it is not the Devil who appears but rather an evil interdimensional entity, Golem100 (the superscript number signifying its sheer malevolent power), a physical manifestation of their hidden (or ‘id’-en, if you will) urges.

Its presence results in a number of brutal murders which three individuals try to solve.  One is Blaise Shima, ‘The Nose’, a perfumer with an exquisite sense of smell.  Gretchen Nunn, a master of psychodynamics, is brought in by Shima’s company to find out why he, their major asset, is acting strangely.  She is blind, but strangely does not realise it until she is told because she is able to see vicariously via the sight of others around her.  Her initial investigation indicates that Shima might be implicated in the murders as he always seems to be close to the scene when they are carried out, but the reality proves more complicated.

The third member of the group is Subadar Ind’dni of the police, a high-caste Hindu who may have extensive resources at his disposal, as he frequently mentions, but who is stymied by the crimes.  Eventually Gretchen learns that her limited awareness in the visual range is more than compensated for by her ability to see in parts of the spectrum not accessible to other humans, giving her an advantage in the hunt.  Their pursuit of Golem100 is mystical as much as physical, a drug-assisted trip through various dimensions of the ‘Phasmaworld’.

It is a stiff read as Bester is light on exposition.  The novel manages the feat of nodding positively to the Women’s Liberation Movement while being sexist, and the counter-cultural vibe is very much of its time, as are the murky badly-reproduced sections of illustrations, ostensibly standing in for the inadequacy of language but very much adding to the general confusion.  When you learn that cannibalism is an accepted gourmet dining choice, a necrophiliac turns up, and you discover that one of the speech styles of the 22nd century echoes some kind of 1970s jive-talk, you know the author is trying to be hip.

Eventually things get really weird.  Gretchen replaces the queen of the hive and inadvertently kills Shima by ripping off his penis in the throes of passion as he takes his turn at the end of an insecty gang-bang.  Golem100 seems to have been destroyed, but in a twist Gretchen finds Ind’dni had been replaced after his journey to the Phasmaworld ‘contrabedlam’ and is now Golem101, the direct opposite of all Ind’dni had been.  As Gretchen has quasi-super powers, the eternal struggle between higher and baser instincts will presumably continue, minus the unfortunate Shima.  It is a densely-written novel and is best treated as experimental, but it still feels an overlong self-indulgent mess.

101 Cult Movies You Must See Before You Die, by Steven Jay Schneider (ed.)

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This 2015 compilation, edited by Steven Jay Schneider, brings together 101 ‘cult’ films presented in chronological order, from Un Chien Andalou (1928) to Under the Skin (2013).  Each film only gets a couple of pages of text plus the poster and a still, so there is little opportunity to analyse it in depth.

‘Cult’ is of course a slippery concept and Schneider does not attempt to define it other than in general terms, encompassing films considered ‘obscure’, ‘eccentric’, ‘controversial’ and ‘downright weird’ (terms equally applicable to films which failed to achieve cult status and instead ended up forgotten).  Some achieve the epithet because of content, style, or the makers’ adventurous intelligence; others because of audiences’ ‘so bad they’re good’ smugness.  Filmmakers who attempt to manufacture a cult film are more likely to end up objects of derision.

An issue not addressed is whether the concept of a cult film has any meaning in a world where vast numbers of films are readily accessible and no longer have to be sought out.  Traditionally cult films have had an air of exclusivity in terms of their fan base but it is more difficult nowadays to portray a particular film as a secret shared among a few devotees when you can access it via a streaming service.  The sense of specialness a cult film used to generate is harder to achieve when it is as easy to find as the latest blockbuster.

One can quibble with some of the choices: I personally would not characterise Sullivan’s Travels, Jazz on a Summer’s Day or Napoleon Dynamite as cult films, but they may have dedicated followings I have not come across.  Others are a little obvious: Reefer Madness, Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, even if nobody would dispute their cultness quotient.

Some directors seem to be represented by the wrong film, Ingmar Bergman by Persona rather than The Seventh Seal, Terry Gilliam by Time Bandits rather than Brazil, Werner Herzog by Fitzcarraldo rather than Aguirre, the Wrath of God (hard choices though).  In general, however, this is a sound selection.

There is an anglophone bias, and while some non-English language films are included, world cinema has not been tapped to any great extent (Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, Jacques Rivette and Bruce Lee being notable omissions).  I am sure there are many countries in which film buffs could nominate home-grown products that are cult films domestically yet little known internationally.

101 Cult Movies You Must See before You Die is an ideal toilet book.  Naturally it cannot be comprehensive, given the constraints of the format.  But then it is not really designed for the person who is already a fan of cult films, probably among a broader range of cinematic interests.  It functions rather as a list of suggestions to stimulate the casual reader to take a look, and perhaps discover some gems they might not otherwise have come across.  Whether though anybody on their deathbed will bemoan not having seen Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Amazon Women on the Moon is doubtful.

The Ripliad, by Patricia Highsmith

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The Talented Mr Ripley
Ripley Under Ground
Ripley’s Game
The Boy Who Followed Ripley
Ripley Under Water

I’ve always had a soft spot for Tom Ripley, probably in part because of the similarity in our names, but let’s face it, there’s a bit of Ripley in most of us.  In five volumes, published between 1955 and 1991, Patricia Highsmith tells the story of her anti-hero as he uses any means at his disposal, including murder, to get and keep what he thinks he deserves.  The fan-bestowed collective title amusingly evokes the Iliad, but while entertaining, it is safe to say Highsmith is not on a par with Homer.

In The Talented Mr Ripley (1956), which begins the sequence and is the best of the cycle, Tom Ripley, a low-level and not terribly successful grifter in his mid-20s, is approached in New York by the father of a vague friend and asked to go  to Italy to talk the son, Dicky Greenleaf, into coming home to his responsibilities.  Dicky is leading a bohemian existence in Mongibello, a village outside Naples, fostering his vain fantasy of becoming a painter. Failing to disclose that the relationship was not as close as Mr Greenleaf assumes, Ripley, dissatisfied with his life, and particularly his poverty, readily accepts the offer to go to Italy on Mr Greenleaf’s money.

Ripley suffers from self-esteem issues, having been brought up by an unsympathetic aunt.  He despises himself for not being what he thinks he should be.  He knows he has talent but needs to find a way to express it, and hopes Italy will provide the opportunity (it does, only not in the way he expects).  He travels to Mongibello but Dicky is unresponsive to his father’s blandishments.  Ripley inveigles himself into Dicky’s life and they become pals, to the distaste of Marge, Dickie’s not-quite girlfriend, who sees Ripley as a threat.  In return Ripley does not think much of Marge; in fact he is not a fan of women altogether.

In short order Ripley becomes obsessed with Dickie’s relaxed trust fund lifestyle and fantasises about their relationship, though he is ambivalent concerning Dickie’s merits, envying him and wanting to be with him, but considering him dull and unworthy to possess the privileges he effortlessly enjoys.  There is a fine line between Ripley aping Dickie’s way of life as a role model, and using it as cover for homosexual attachment, with Dickie as his object of desire.  There seems little doubt that there is a sexual element on Ripley’s side, albeit sublimated into a more generalised wish to live in a manner in keeping with his aspirations.  Ripley would be the last person in the world to admit to being a fag.

Then one day it all goes wrong when Dickie comes in while Ripley is wearing his clothes, and begins to distance himself.  Seeing he is about to be cut loose, Ripley takes firm action while the two are out in a boat.  The way is open for Ripley to assume Dickie’s identity, but for how long can he keep it up?  He is managing very well, until Dickie’s friend Freddie arrives unexpectedly to see Dickie and finds Ripley instead.  This time the body won’t be quite as easy to get rid of, and in short order the complications arising become almost unmanageable.

Fortunately Ripley is a natural method actor, able to get into character, and is a successful forger.  He is highly intelligent, with an ability to make people underestimate him.  At one point as a ‘disguise’ he dons a pair of glasses, and the mild-mannered Tom Ripley fools the Italian police who do not suspect him.  While he is talented, to be fair he is lucky too, and on numerous occasions thinks it going to be all up when people inevitably realise what has happened, only for him to be amazed he has got away with it.  Most of the first readers (before the four sequels showed he had to have got away with it) must have been amazed too, having assumed a double murderer would be brought to justice at the novel’s conclusion.

There are plot holes, notably Marge accepting Ripley and Dickie were good friends though Dickie had made it clear he was fed up with Ripley.  Nobody questions how Ripley can afford to spend months in Europe including a nice palazzo in Venice (and the claim he makes to Marge that he is burning through his savings would fall apart at a moment’s inspection).  He certainly has had the opportunity to murder Dickie, and a motive is not hard to see.  One would expect the police to scrutinise Ripley a little harder than they do.

A lot of the tension in the plot comes from the dialogue, as the various threads of what Tom and Dickie and Tom-as-Dickie were doing become so convoluted it seems inevitable he is going to trip himself up trying to keep the stories straight, but he always manages.  There is a tension between his self-control and his impulsiveness, but though he feels a great deal of stress at the prospect of being caught, there is a part of him that enjoys the intellectual challenge.  He is aware of his superiority and his ability to read people.

Highsmith plays with Henry James’s unsophisticated Americans aspiring to European sophistication.   The difference now is that US enrichment on the back of the world war has facilitated an invasion of confident expats, bringing money into economies still recovering a decade on.  In addition to the thriller, there is an attractive travelogue aspect which would have been appealing to its original audience in the same way Elizabeth David’s cookbooks were, a taste of colourful Mediterranean culture in a grey Cold War world.

Ripley Under Ground (1970) sees Ripley six years on surprisingly married to Heloise, the daughter of a wealthy family, and living in a lovely house, Belle Ombre, at Villeperce, a semi-rural part of France a few miles from Fontainebleau, south of Paris.  There he spends much of his time gardening, being an amateur painter (shades of Dickie), learning languages and generally enjoying a life of leisure.  He has secured Dickie Greenleaf’s money, but part of his income derives from an art scam in which he is involved.  The work of a painter, Philip Derwatt, who committed suicide in Greece five years earlier, is being forged by Bernard Tufts, as the paintings command high prices.  Derwatt is supposed to be living in seclusion in Mexico and shipping his painting over to the London Buckmaster gallery, who are in on the fraud.

When a dissatisfied American, Tom Murchison, claims his Derwatt painting is a forgery on the grounds it reverts to a colour Derwatt had discarded, and no painter would return to a colour in that way, Ripley is persuaded to go to London to impersonate the painter and put Murchison’s mind at rest.  Ripley goes, masquerades as Derwatt, and as himself invites Murchison to his home to see his two Derwatt ’s, one of which is fake and the other genuine.  Unfortunately Murchison realises Ripley had been impersonating the artist in London, because he recognises Ripley’s hands of all things.  He threatens to expose the conspiracy so Ripley does the only thing possible in the circumstances, down in the wine cellar.  Characteristically events get increasingly complicated as the police nose round after the missing man and Bernard becomes unhinged by guilt at his role in the deception.  He threatens to confess, which would be catastrophic for everybody else involved.

Ripley’s activities are again a combination of self-preservation and an enjoyment of manipulating the situation as he races over Europe sorting out the mess.  He enjoys the thrill of breaking the law: as well as the art fraud he participates in a rather peculiar scheme organised by an acquaintance, Reeves Minot, in which individuals act as unwitting mules carrying small items (such as microfilm) that Ripley, putting them up, can remove from their belongings and forward in the post.  This works out well as it gives Ripley the necessary contacts when he requires a false passport.  The theme of identity in The Talented Mr Ripley is extended because not only is Ripley passing himself off as someone who is dead, but the paintings are being forged, raising further questions of authenticity.

The ambiguity over Ripley’s sexuality has been largely forgotten though Heloise seems to spend much of her time away (she is in Greece with friends at the beginning of the novel).  They have separate bedrooms and though they occasionally share a bed one suspects the relationship is light on the sexual side.  Ripley buys clothes for her as gifts when away, and has a good eye for style, presumably code for homosexuality.  He is fond of her, and misses her when she is not present, but because she is a point of stability rather than because of a grand passion.

Ripley believes she is faithful, but this may be an optimistic assessment – she is French after all – though he does acknowledge she has a racy side.  Thus he tells her a surprising amount about the trouble he is in, including that he murdered Murchison, and she is not surprised.  In fact he tells the London gallery owners as well, much more surprising as one might think murder to be something he would wish to keep to oneself.  He even tells the police he has assisted in disposing of Derwatt’s corpse (actually Bernard’s, after he committed suicide just outside Salzburg) by burning it, which helps in disposing of Derwatt, now an inconvenience, while leaving the missing Bernard’s fate hanging.

His tale sounds guaranteed to bring its own set of problems with the Austrian police, especially as it sounds so feeble but again he has a lot of luck on his side, albeit the British CID man sent to investigate Murchison’s disappearance might be suspicious, having realised that including Dickie and Freddie, people have a habit of vanishing in Ripley’s vicinity.  The complexities work out even though Ripley tends to take spur-of-the-moment actions.  Whether he will get away with having burned a corpse is an open question not resolved at the novel’s conclusion.

Unfortunately the plot is not as strong as that of the first novel, and as we now have a good idea of what Ripley is capable of doing there are few surprises.  The neuroses of the first book are gone, making Ripley a less interesting character as a result.  There is still pleasure in watching the plot unfold around Ripley’s ingenuity, but it is lacking the atmosphere and inventiveness of its predecessor.  The title is an amusing pun because in a way Ripley has to go underground in order to resolve the complications, and at one point Bernard tries to kill him by whacking him on the back of the head and burying him alive.  Obviously he fails in the effort, but it is a fair bet Ripley would not have had the situation been reversed.

Ripley’s Game (1974) is set six months after Ripley Under Ground, and once again Ripley’s luck has held and there has been no negative comeback from the Derwatt affair.  He is still living in the same lovely house in France with Heloise and enjoying a relaxed life.  His Hamburg-based friend Reeves asks him for his help in locating someone to commit assassinations in Germany, where the Mafia are putting out feelers that have unsettled the home-grown illegal gambling interests.  Reeves is desperate to find someone to carry out the killings but has had no luck.  Not really too bothered about what happens in Hamburg, Ripley suddenly has a left-field idea for someone who might be suitable.

Recently Ripley, who often notices his slightly unsavoury reputation preceding him, was insulted by an Englishman at a party, and thinks he can kill two birds with one stone.  Jonathan Trevanny, who like Ripley is married to a French woman, Simone, and lives locally, has leukaemia.  Barely making ends meet as a picture framer and, with his disease, having little to lose, Ripley thinks there is a possibility he could be persuaded to carry out the hits for a large sum of money to leave to his family.  By suggesting Jonathan, Ripley can help Reeves, but at the same time it is an amusing wheeze against the man who was rude to him.  Reeves, desperate for ideas, decides to try to persuade Jonathan it would be worth his while to go along with the scheme and embarks on a programme of encouraging Jonathan by using visits to German blood specialists as bait.

Whereas the focus in the first two books is firmly on Ripley, much of the action here concerns Jonathan and how he is corrupted.  In the process Ripley disappears for stretches.  Jonathan, after much coaxing and the promise of a large sum, successfully accomplishes the first killing, shooting a gangster in a crowd.  But Reeves pressures him to commit another murder and Ripley, feeling pangs of conscience over having got Jonathan involved, decides to help him.  This is a much more complicated and risky hit on a train, and they carry it out together, in the process Jonathan saving Ripley from falling out of the carriage door.

Despite his nice life, Ripley is not sorry to be involved in action, justifying it to himself because he is helping to fight the Mafia though he had never displayed such public-spirited attitudes in the past.  For his part, Jonathan has two problems.  The immediate one is how to explain a large sum of money to his intelligent wife when he is not used to lying to her and any explanation he or Ripley formulates sounds weak.  Catholic Simone, with her feeling for the sanctity of life, cannot countenance the thought of killing (though Ripley muses that the Catholic Mafia members do not have a problem) and would refuse to keep the money if she knew its origin.

The second is when the Mafia gets on the trail and begin closing in on Ripley and Jonathan.  Jonathan had disliked Ripley, but the two find themselves becoming close, even affectionate, through shared adversity as the body count rises.  Unfortunately Simone blames Ripley entirely for the situation Jonathan is in, though Jonathan had entered voluntarily into the agreement with Reeves; she thinks Ripley must have some hold over him and is exploiting him, yet for once Ripley does not benefit directly in any way from the business.

After the slightly desultory Ripley Under Ground, this is a return to form, albeit one pervaded by gloom because of the constant reminders of Jonathan’s mortality.  Again, however, some suspension of disbelief is required.  Ripley and Jonathan have killed two Mafiosi in Jonathan’s house, in front of his wife and child, and Jonathan is also dead in the street, most likely having shielded Ripley from a bullet.  Yet Simone is able to keep Ripley out of her statements in order to retain the money Jonathan had earned, contradicting Jonathan’s earlier fears she would reject it.  The police know there was another person present, and with shots fired in a quiet French street and three murders it is incredible the police would not be more rigorous in investigating the incident and attempting to determine why gunmen had invaded the house of an apparently blameless couple with such disastrous results.  Yet once again Ripley has got away with his actions and the Mafia seem to have been thrown off the scent.  Having brushed disaster and come through unscathed, he can go back to his leisurely existence at Belle Ombre.

Where Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game tone down any sense of homosexuality, Ripley’s sexuality is more to the fore in The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980).  While there is no overt acknowledgement he is gay, the possibility weaves through the book.  Ripley is still living comfortably with Heloise at Belle Ombre.  The boy of the title is 16-year old American Frank Pierson, though calling himself Billy, who turns up in Villeperce and makes contact with Ripley.  He is working as a gardener a few miles away but Ripley quickly establishes he is the missing son of a wealthy Maine family.

His father, who had made a fortune from food, but was confined to a wheelchair after an assassination attempt, had died by mysteriously falling over a cliff at the family’s seaside home shortly before Frank left.  His death had been considered either an accident or suicide, though Frank had been with him at the time.  Frank had heard of Ripley (his father owning a Derwatt and Ripley’s name having come up over the issue of whether some of the paintings were faked) and decided to seek him out.  Frank, having stolen his brother’s passport to get to France via England, confesses to Ripley he had pushed his father over and is feeling guilty, though he is not suspected.  More upsetting for Frank than the death of his father is the knowledge that his girlfriend Teresa has dumped him.

Ripley is fascinated by the young man.  Frank refuses to return to his family, and Ripley is concerned there might be a kidnap attempt if criminals have managed to work out who he is as well.  When a mysterious car is seen near where Frank is living, Ripley decides it would be safer to move him to Belle Ombre, telling Heloise the boy is staying for a few days to help in the garden.  After getting Frank a false passport, the pair travel to Berlin to stay with Eric, an obliging friend of Reeve’s, from whence Ripley hopes to be able to convince Frank to return to New York.

Unfortunately while they are taking a stroll in some woods Frank is kidnapped and the plot finally moves up a gear as Ripley works to free him.  This he succeeds in doing, in collaboration with Eric’s obliging friends, while retaining the ransom money which is returned to the family.  Frank and Ripley go to Paris to meet up with Frank’s brother and a detective sent over to look for him.  From there they all travel back to the house in the United States where Frank’s father died, and where a final tragedy awaits.

The novel is weak on plot, with many inconsequential details and conversations padding out the story, and little action before the kidnapping almost halfway in.  It constantly feels as if it might spin off into another more interesting direction – perhaps the Berlin acquaintance Eric is not quite as pleasant as he seems and will betray Ripley, or at least steal the money, which Ripley is happy to leave unattended in Eric’s flat; perhaps the kidnappers will be cunning and outsmart Ripley to get their revenge for their dead colleague, instead of being a bunch of dimwits; perhaps Frank’s family will refuse to believe he is acting in Frank’s interest because of his reputation and go after him, creating confusion (instead they accept him at face value without question) – something to generate some much-needed tension.

The major flaw though is Ripley’s failure to pay the ransom while killing one of the kidnappers, which makes no sense.  The Piersons could afford it and by killing one of the gang he put Frank in jeopardy.  They could easily have killed or mutilated him (Highsmith mentions John Paul Getty III, who had an ear cut off when he was kidnapped, like Frank at the age of 16).  There is no guarantee Ripley will recover Frank intact.  The kidnappers’ whereabouts are discovered by Ripley going undercover in drag after making a new rendevous in a gay bar and following the extremely amateurish kidnappers, then breaking in and rescuing Frank who is drugged but unharmed.  There was so much that could have gone wrong with the scenario.

The gay elements are plentiful, though they are coy, and dated for 1980: from Frank wanting to sleep on sheets Tom had used, Ripley reading Christopher and his Kind, Ripley, Heloise and Frank listening to Lou Reed’s Transformer, Heloise reading Auden’s poetry (most unlikely), the gay bars of Berlin where Ripley is quite pleased at being seen in the company of a much younger man, later wearing drag to foil the kidnappers, to Ripley and Frank sharing a bed.  Slyly, cigarettes are referred to as ‘fags’ at one point.  There is much talk of Frank’s unhappiness at Teresa dumping him, but this is thin cover for Frank’s ‘idolisation’ of Ripley, down to mimicking his gestures, and Ripley’s fascination with ‘the boy’.

That Ripley accompanies Frank back to the United States is an indication he finds it hard to separate from him.  True he does have intimate relations with Heloise, but very infrequently, and she is happy to spend time away with him, such as planning to go on a cruise with a ‘girlfriend’.  It is an arrangement suiting them both, while she conveniently takes her husband’s friendship with Frank at face value.  In turn, the one occasion Frank tried with Teresa, it didn’t work out.

Frank wants to be like Ripley, but he cannot because he feels guilt at murder, whereas Ripley, while he may not like having done them, is able to set them to one side in his mind and get on with his life.  Frank cannot ignore what he has done and he harbours an urge to make a confession Ripley tells him would be pointless.  Psychopaths do not experience guilt, and Frank is not a psychopath, in fact he feels too much.  Ripley thinks that for Frank, the emotions will pass because for him they would, and he cannot empathise with the strength of Frank’s emotions.  Ripley’s fascination with him is surprising because while there is a certain link in both having committed murder, Frank is actually quite bland and Ripley is sophisticated in his tastes (perhaps Frank reminds him of Dickie).  It is hard to see the attraction for Ripley, apart from perhaps a sense Frank has opportunities denied to him at that age, opportunities Frank literally throws over the same cliff he pushed his father off.

In spite of its flaws and longueurs, Highsmith is still good at evoking place, particularly West Berlin a decade before the fall of the wall, contrasting its hedonism with East Germany’s joylessness, and this is best read as a historical rather than crime novel.  It is surprising to us now that Ripley and Frank can visit East Berlin, and Ripley learns that because the American dollar has sunk, American servicemen can no longer afford West German prostitutes and have to go through to the eastern half, which does not please the communist authorities as they deny there is prostitution in the east.  It is such insights that hold the interest, rather than the love daring not to speak its name at inordinate length.

Ripley Under Water (1991) is a return to form, with the usual necessary suspension of disbelief, and provides a fitting conclusion to the Ripliad.  Admittedly it is light on plot, but the cat-and-mouse aspect and the genuine sense of jeopardy generated make it a page turner.  The gayness of The Boy Who Followed Ripley is much toned down, notwithstanding Ripley reading Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde, whom he likens to Jesus in his persecution, and watching Some Like it Hot.

Ripley is still living at Belle Ombre with Heloise (now spelled Héloïse), having got away with his past misdemeanours.  But his peace is threatened when a strange American couple, David and Janice Pritchard, a surname the French characters are universally unable to pronounce correctly, move into a house on the other side of Villeperce.  David scrapes an acquaintance with Ripley and hints heavily that he knows the truth about Dickie Greenleaf and Tom Murchison (the latter has been dead for five years we learn).  The couple begin stalking him, making calls pretending to be Dickie and photographing Ripley’s house, and David turns up in Morocco when Ripley and Héloïse are there on holiday.  Ripley gives him a kicking, but it fails to stop the harassment.

The Pritchards have a sado-masochistic relationship and play games of different kinds.  David has fastened on Ripley as someone with whom he can have a satisfying game, the object being to make Ripley squirm.  Ripley correctly sees their behaviour as pathological, and a definite threat to his wellbeing.  The situation becomes still more serious when David obtains a boat and he and an assistant begin dredging canals and rivers in the area for Murchison’s body.  Ripley establishes that Pritchard has been in touch with Mrs Murchison, and with Cynthia, Bernard Tuft’s ex, in London and is keeping them informed of progress.

The Pritchards may be stumbling around, but they could still be the catalyst for all Ripley’s secrets to come out.  He realises he has to take action before his past is uncovered and his life in Villeperce ruined, with the murder of Murchison and the Derwatt art forgery business exposed.  Unfortunately for the Pritchards, they have woefully underestimated Ripley and what he is capable of, David thinking he is making Ripley crumble under the pressure when he is just making Ripley angry.

However, it turns out Ripley does not have to do much because the Pritchards do it for him, to which end the denouement is a little surprising and unsatisfactory.  Pritchard manages to locate Murchison’s body, minus the head, and instead of handing it to the police as evidence, he leaves it on Ripley’s doorstep early one morning.  Ripley and his friend Ed, called over from London to help, do not do the obvious and deposit what is left of the body in a river further away or bury it somewhere remote; rather they return Murchison’s corpse to the Pritchards’ property, throwing it in their 6-foot deep pond, even though this might supply a link between him and the murder.

Trying to fish it out David falls into the pond and Janice goes in as well trying to help him, and somehow, because the bottom is muddy, they both drown.  It is remarkably lucky for Ripley, as is David’s apparent failure to keep any incriminating paperwork, but he always was lucky, and he can go on his way with a clear conscience because although he did nothing to help them, he did not actively destroy them.  The reader is probably cheering because David Pritchard is a creep and Ripley a likeable chap.  While he has reservations, Ed goes along with the outcome, albeit uncomfortable seeing Ripley’s methods at first hand.

An obvious question is how Pritchard knew Murchison’s body was underwater when Ripley was the only person who knew where he was (Bernard had helped to dispose of it but he would have had no incentive to tell anybody, least of all Cynthia).  The corpse could have been buried in woodland somewhere for all Pritchard knew.  It’s one of those plot holes you get carried over by Highsmith’s technique.  It is also noteworthy that Ripley appears not to have aged as much as the 35-odd years between the first and last books in the series might suggest.  Chronologically he should by now be in his late 50s, but he seems much younger.

Such issues matter not, because you become enveloped in the world of Tom Ripley.  He is safe at the end of Under Water, as far as he is aware, but who knows what further adventures he might have experienced had Highsmith lived longer.  Perhaps though he continued sedately at Belle Ombre with the fragrant Héloïse, filling his days with painting, learning languages and to play the harpsichord, socialising with friends, travelling and pottering in the garden.  An enviable life, certainly, though not one most of us would be willing to resort to murder in order to preserve.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, by Laura Amy Schlitz

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In Amy Schlitz’s 2006 A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama, set in 1909, 11-year old orphan Maud Flynn is growing up in the dreary Barbary Asylum in the eastern United States.  As intelligent and independently minded as one would expect the heroine of a young adult novel to be, she has a dreary life, with the canning factory her likely future.  However, she is too feisty to be well behaved and so on good terms with the superintendent, and consequently is frequently in trouble.

As the story opens she is locked in the outhouse after a minor infraction, the latest of many, where she is rebelliously singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  Two maiden sisters, Hyacinth and Judith Hawthorne, are due to visit to adopt a girl, younger and no doubt more pliable than Maud, so she is most surprised, as is the superintendent, when they insist on taking her, Hyacinth being enchanted by her beautiful singing voice.  Thus begins an adventure in which Maud becomes a secret girl in the ‘family business’ Hyacinth and Judith share with their other sister, Victoria.

Things start well for Maud.  She is bought new clothes and books, is able to wash in water not shared with others, and at last gets a decent diet.  She had had two siblings, an older brother and a younger sister, but they had been adopted and Maud left behind, unwanted.  Now she seems to be with people who will love her.

But there is a downside to the arrangement: she is smuggled into the house and told nobody must know she is with them, confined to the upper part of the building, Maud quickly realises appearances are deceptive in that the sisters are not as wealthy as she had assumed, and the house, which at first glance seemed fine, is on closer inspection shabby and worn.  Later she will learn of other deceptions.

Once she is established with the family, which is looked after by the strange limping servant Muffet who is deaf and dumb but makes strange noises as she walks, she is told why she is a secret.  The sisters work as fake mediums and she is to take the part of their spirit child, for which she is perfect because of her intelligence, good singing voice and above all the fact she is small for her age.

Maud naturally has to go along with the scheme because the alternative is to return to the home.  She justifies what she is doing by telling herself they are making people happy if the bereaved think they are in touch with their loved ones in spirit.  And as well as a home, she now has a family of sorts, and tries to foster a mother-daughter relationship with Hyacinth whom she adores, though Hyacinth seems to find it amusing and is more concerned with using Maud to make money than being a surrogate parent.

A séance with a credulous man who lost his wife goes well, but a much harder prospect is in view: Mrs Lambert whose 8-year old daughter Caroline drowned in the ocean at Cape Calypso.  But Maud, tired of the summer heat and the restrictions imposed on her, begins slipping out of the house when the sisters are visiting to play on the beach and watch the merry-go-round at the small fairground.  There she meets Mrs Lambert who of course has no idea who she is, likes her, and begins to feel guilty.

Gradually she sees that Hyacinth is self-absorbed and not interested in her feelings, while she bonds with the illiterate Muffet, whom she teaches to read.  Still she goes along with the plan to fleece Mrs Lambert, but at the climactic séance when she ‘materialises’ as Caroline there is a fire in the house and she only escapes with difficulty.  Then she knows who loves her and who has been using her.

It is a strength of the novel that the characters are not black and white but are nuanced; even kindly Mrs Lambert can have flashes of temper, and Maud discovers Caroline was not the little angel (the default for a dead child even today) Hyacinth assumed she had been.  Naturally, this being a young adult novel, everything turns out well: Maud and Muffet are safe with Mrs Lambert, a true and sincere family at last, while the Hawthornes’ careers as fake mediums are finished.  Maud has grown as a person and shown her intelligence and independent spirit, and now understands beauty and goodness are not synonymous.

There is melodrama in the tale of an orphan adopted by three weird sisters for a mysterious purpose, but there are deeper themes of compassion, following one’s conscience, appearances masking true intent, the abuse of trust, the nature of love and commitment, and to what extent we owe a debt to the deceased.  The Spiritualism is depicted as completely fake and designed to exploit for financial gain, with no sense there might have been mediums, believing themselves to be genuine, sincerely offering comfort.  There is though one paranormal element, touched on lightly.

Maud has been told by Hyacinth that Caroline had fair hair, but when Maud begins dreaming of Caroline, she dreams her with brown hair, and is later told by Mrs Lambert that Caroline’s hair was dark.  Caroline’s depiction was accurate, leaving open the possibility she really is visiting Maud; evidence for the continuation of Caroline’s personality is to be found in the drowned maiden’s hair.  Later, when Mrs Lambert has come to terms with the death, Maud no longer dreams of Caroline, but Mrs Lambert does.  The mother, no long wracked by guilt, is reunited with her dead daughter.

Wall and Piece, by Banksy

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The title of Banksy’s 2006 compilation of his art spanning the years 2001-06, sprinkled with random musings, is a nice pun, evoking not only the gravitas of Tolstoy, everything Banksy is not, but reminding us that without walls on which to add his pieces, there wouldn’t be much Banksy.  You have to admire the range of his output, and the speed he puts them up, necessary if he is to remain anonymous and evade the forces of the establishment.  He can be funny and comes over as self-deprecating: ‘I’m going to speak my mind, so this won’t take very long.’  But really it is a faux modesty, because he clearly believes he has something of worth to say.

It’s not all walls: he paints on vehicles and animals (not sure the welfare organisations would have been pleased).  He puts fake shark fins in lakes, makes sculptures from traffic cones and a red phone kiosk, uses stuffed animals, creates a fake ‘ancient’ wall art featuring a shopping trolley.  He does not always succeed in his aim.  Sometimes he just puts his elegant tag on things, which seems pointless even if the location is challenging (such as a zoo).  A balloon with the McDonalds logo and a blow-up doll underneath tethered over Piccadilly may be titled ‘McDonalds is stealing our children’ but to passers-by it probably looked like innovative advertising by the multinational.  Banksy advertising McDonalds: another irony.

At his best he playfully addresses such issues as consumerism, ideology, freedom, surveillance, the way society constrains imagination, definitions of art, war and state oppression, and corruption in government organisations.  Often it is just making fun of institutions like the police and the army, presumably because they are repressive arms of the fascist bourgeoisie.  The politics seem somewhat vague, an understandable dislike of the way society is run rather than any sense of how to change it.

This can lead to the bizarre description of witnessing a gang ram-raiding a mobile phone shop in Portobello Road while out in the middle of the night painting images of Che Guevara to emphasise his commodification, and imagining them lighting a spliff and saying ‘Why would someone just paint pictures of a revolutionary when you can actually behave like one instead?’  Is he saying that nicking phones is a revolutionary act, and that the thieves would even know a revolutionary act if they saw one?  What is a revolutionary act in the context of the Portobello Road anyway?  Banksy isn’t saying.

He does like contradiction, perhaps seeing it as dialectical: the thug about to throw a bunch of flowers rather than a Molotov cocktail; the Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher; an armed paramilitary with a smiley face; an attack helicopter sporting a pink ribbon; an armed soldier painting a CND logo.  It feels as though it ought to be profound, but the line between agitprop and joke is blurry.

A major target is the art gallery.  One may not agree with his attitude towards conventional museums and galleries but they can be pompous places, and seeing him subvert their reverential approach by adding his own adapted paintings is amusing.  Some of his ‘donations’ have found their way into the institutions’ permanent collections, which is appropriate given some of the prices this canny operator’s works have fetched in recent years.

Where possible he adds to the caption the length of time the addition remained in situ without the curators noticing.  That this was sometimes days indicates the gallery staff had stopped paying attention to their wares; and for the visitors one painting was much like another, with nothing odd about the Banksy style compared to say a Constable.  It is a good point well made.  On the other hand painting ‘Boring’ on the side of the Hayward Gallery, or ‘Mind the crap’ in front of Tate Britain, is an arrogant anti-intellectual declaration that he knows best.

A painting of a tin of Tesco Value Tomato Soup on the wall at MOMA (lasted six days) puts one in mind of Warhol of course, but Banksy adds: ‘A sea of people walked up, stared and moved on looking confused and slightly cheated.  I felt like a true modern artist.’  It is a cheap shot that dismisses the entire corpus of modern art, though naturally Banksy is not a ‘modern artist’ because he refuses to be a pretentious navel gazer like they all are.

Instead, his vision is for streets filled with graffiti, control wrested from the corporations and taken back by the people who live there so the urban landscape feels like a non-stop party (his words), and fun fun fun.  Well, some people might like it but to me it sounds hellish.  Unlike Banksy’s clever output, most street art is unsubtle, unwitty and garish, degrading the environment and imposing on the landscape as much as the commercial billboards Banksy derides – billboards which can often be creative and entertaining.

You can see this degradation in action when he stencils ‘This wall is a designated graffiti area’ on blank white walls, and they duly fill up with horrible rubbish.  How the homeowners must have laughed.  Street art is fine, but only as long as you are as funny, clever and small-scale as Banksy.  Otherwise the environment is as much hijacked as it is with an advert for perfume forcing itself on one’s attention.

He is also surprisingly anti-democratic in his views: ‘They say graffiti frightens people and is symbolic of the decline in society, but graffiti is only dangerous in the minds of three types of people; politicians, advertising executives and graffiti writers.’  He does not say who ‘they’ are, presumably anybody who believes graffiti are a blight, and he thinks ‘they’ should be discounted.  It is a blithe assumption that only two groups find graffiti offensive, because it threatens their self-interest, when there are plenty of people who feel graffiti do mar the environment, the ‘they’ he has just dismissed.  As for graffiti writers, narcissism is probably a stronger motive for most than posing a danger to the status quo.

He mentions the Broken Window Theory, but does not engage with it, though he prints an email from someone unhappy with Banksy operating in his area (Hackney as it happens), complaining it pushes up the prices because people think it ‘cool’ to have Banksy working in your street.  Admittedly some of the places where he exercises his art are already scummy and could do with improvement, but his approach is not necessarily the solution, and may be part of the problem by encouraging those less talented to feel they have the right to make their mark as well.

Many of the works in Wall and Piece will now exist only as photographs, especially the early ones before they began commanding the sorts of prices that made chiseling them out of walls worthwhile.  It is therefore a useful compilation of his work but elicited a sense of unease about his motives (I say ‘he’ because I give no credence to the rumour ‘Banksy’ is actually an anarchist lesbian collective based in Hoxton).  Is he a hypocrite?  ‘Copyright is for losers’ it says on the copyright page, but Banksy, pretending to be self-deprecating while eating his cake, exercises his intellectual property rights over the book.  ‘Public domain’ for Bansky stretches so far and no farther.  He concludes: ‘People either love me or they hate me, or they don’t really care.’  That definitely includes me.

The Uninvited: The True Story of the Union Screaming House, by Steven LaChance

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Steven LaChance’s 2008 account of his fraught relationship with a house in Union, Missouri, USA, co-written by Laura Long-Helbig, falls into the demon infestation genre: the melodramatic subtitle gives a good idea what to expect, though stylistically this is no Exorcist.  The first part of the book outlines LaChance’s personal history, the breakdown of his marriage and the need to find somewhere decent to live for himself and his three children, a daughter and two sons.  After some false starts, in 2001 they rent a pleasant-seeming house from an eccentric landlord, Mr Winters, at a reasonable price, but they quickly find occupation comes at a price.

The account is quite slow to get to the phenomena in the house, indeed to get to the house full stop, but it helps to have a picture of the personalities, even if there is a degree of self-pity and score settling involved.  The confessional aspect invites speculation about the vanished wife because it seems odd a woman who doesn’t like children has three before leaving the family.  There is a feeling more was going on in the marriage than is stated by LaChance (in fact looking at his blog I see he has come out as gay and has a husband, so his sexuality may have been a relevant factor in his wife’s decision to leave, rather than simply her alleged dislike of having children).

The first hint of something not quite right is that Mr Winters only likes to visit during the day.  Once the family is installed, they notice pedestrians always cross the road when passing the house, though never bothering to find out why.  Nor do they ever talk to the neighbours about their knowledge of the house or who the previous tenants were.  The phenomena themselves begin more as a nuisance than a threat, with all the lights on whenever the family returns to the house.  They soon escalate, with boxes moving and falling over, booming sounds, closet doors opening, a cold feeling, and one of the boys seeing a ‘monster clown’ he says went after him.

LaChance sees ghostly figures, one conforming to his son’s sighting, and experiences hideous nightmares of a man washing himself under the ‘butcher’s shower’ in the basement: perhaps a hint there is some kind of psychic residue left over from the past.  They find the shed full of possessions, as if previous occupants had left in a hurry and not bothered to pack.  At the end of his tether, LaChance tackles Mr Winters, who proves to be no help in elucidating what is going on, but to his credit he does find someone to take over the lease.

So halfway through the book the family has moved elsewhere.  Then three years later LaChance decides to write an account of their experiences and put it online, generating a lot of interest.  Through connections in the paranormal community he discovers the people currently occupying his old house are also experiencing unexplained phenomena.  For some reason, despite having been glad to shake the house’s dust from his feet, he feels an obligation to help and returns to support the current tenant, Helen, who finds herself under personal attack.

If anything, Helen’s experiences are worse than those of LaChance and his family.  She hears someone breathing close by, while she is alone in the house.  There are footsteps on the floor above and coming down the stairs.  She hears whispers and sees items move.  Lightbulbs keep blowing.  The gutters catch on fire, the transformer in the front of the house blows up every few months.  The hair is cut off her daughter’s doll, though the girl denies doing it herself.  Far, far worse, they get a new kitten, and when Helen takes her granddaughter upstairs to see it in a bedroom, she says ‘I found the cat dead on the floor.  Its neck and back were both broken.’  Her grandson says something tried to push him down the stairs, injuring him.  The police turn up in the middle of the night claiming someone had made a suicide call from the house; Helen had been the only one home and had not made the call.  She feels watched when she leaves the house and often returns to find windows and doors open, or the lights on.

Once he has committed to helping Helen, LaChance is able to spend large amounts of time on the business, having lost his job.  Research at libraries and archives, something he had not bothered to conduct before, not only yields little information, but he and Helen get the impression the archivists are calling ahead and removing material from the shelves before they arrive.  This suggests a widespread conspiracy surrounding the house, but we never hear anything more about it, and LaChance does not delve into what is a significant aspect of the case.  They come up with information on slaves and Civil War abuses in the area, but do not ascertain why this particular house, built from a Sears kit in the 1930s, should be affected.

They invite large numbers of so-called paranormal investigators who prove unhelpful, as do the psychics and even members of the clergy they persuade to visit, the last group curiously uncomfortable at the prospect of confronting the forces of darkness (or perhaps they consider it nonsense but are too polite to say so).  The paranormal investigators come across as a sorry bunch, some of them even using vigils as an excuse to have some fun and willy-nilly providing information which contradicts that supplied by other groups, creating more confusion than enlightenment.  LaChance finally decides he cannot leave things to others but needs to take control.  To that end he founds the Missouri Paranormal Research Society, with Helen as the group’s first client.

In addition to the phenomena in the house, Helen is subjected to a psychic assault, and the group becomes increasingly desperate to save her as she spirals downwards psychologically.  She becomes paranoid and harbours homicidal thoughts towards her family, employing foul language she would not use in her normal state.  Her eyes become black as an indication an entity is controlling her.  Eventually she has to spend time in a psychiatric ward.  In all these travails LaChance gives Helen more help than her husband Charlie does, because while he half-heartedly concedes something is going on, he says he was brought up to leave such things alone, and takes no further interest in Helen’s plight; until the point when she tries to kill him, after which he disappears from the story.

Eventually things turn out well for Helen through years of therapy sessions with both a psychiatrist and a competent priest.  LaChance becomes a regular churchgoer again, his faith restored.  But although he and Helen are free, an epilogue indicates Mr Winters is up to his old tricks finding fresh victims for the Screaming House, it apparently having a preference for children…

The problem is of course corroboration.  We have to take LaChance’s word for it events transpired as he says they did.  It seems even the cardboard ‘Mr Winters’ was actually a woman.  One will look in vain for independent witness statements, including from the paranormal group he set up, or other groups invited to the house (not all of them can have been completely useless).  LaChance’s religious attitude will leave secularist psychical researchers cold: anybody who doubts the existence of demons will tend to dismiss the book as either exaggerated or false, while those with religious beliefs will find it easier to accept.

However, without some independent evidence it is difficult to take any of the alleged paranormal activity seriously.  LaChance claims the Roman Catholic Church issued a 156-page report describing the Screaming House case ‘as a demonic infestation, oppression, obsession, and possession’, but he does not provide further references or say who specifically conducted the investigation.  The book is frustratingly vague when it comes to providing solid evidence for what are extraordinary claims.

Another puzzle is why Helen stayed so long.  It is a big house – LaChance moved there because he needed three bedrooms for his family, but surely Helen, her husband and daughter did not need a house that size.  In the end Helen goes to stay with another daughter a couple of towns away.  She says they cannot afford to move, but surely if they had wanted to they could have rented somewhere smaller; the accommodation situation cannot be that difficult in the area, especially when the stakes were so high in staying put.

Then although she is possessed for periods, at one point turning up on LaChance’s doorstep with a gun and screaming profanely to be let in, when she is in her right mind he is quite happy to have her associate with himself and other people, though she could become aggressive at any moment.  She even goes on a Hallowe’en hike down a disused road through the woods – called ‘Zombie Road’ no less – though it doesn’t work out too well.  It is a bizarre thing to allow her to do in her fragile mental state.

When she claims to have been raped by an entity, the reader begins to wonder if it is the house which has driven her over the edge or whether the attention from the investigators is feeding a fantasy becoming ever more extreme to hold their interest.  Even worse, if possible, the ‘something’ affected Helen’s daughter and her friends.  When Helen, convinced her husband is cheating on her, goes to his work to stab him, she is handed the knife by one of the friends, who praises its cutting ability.   Despite this there is no discussion about finding help for them, nor how they fared in the long term.  Important issues simply peter out and with so many questions left hanging LaChance’s credibility is damaged.

Reading this it is worth bearing in mind that he proceeded to develop a career in the paranormal.  As well as working with the Missouri Paranormal Research Society, he speaks at conferences, has a local radio show in St Louis, Haunted Survivor, and has appeared in documentaries.  Having experiences like those in the Union Screaming House™ cannot do one’s professional credentials any harm among those convinced demons are real.  He has also branched out into fiction, but perhaps the dividing line in his output is not particularly clear.  There is a sequel to The Uninvited, Blessed are the Wicked (2014), recounting further paranormal episodes in LaChance’s life.

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