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How to Ruin a Good Story: Elizabeth Bowen’s “Demon Lover”

Without intending a Halloween theme, my Netflix queue disgorged two disks recently titled “Shades of Darkness.” (These disks explain my recent posts on the Edith Wharton ghost stories.) The last story on the decidedly inferior disk two was Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover.” While the production qualities of the preceding five stories had been generally poor–could those 1980s British filmmakers not achieve decent sound?–nothing prepared me for the let down of the Bowen story.

If you’re not familiar with Bowen’s solid and brief story, you’ll find it weighing in at less than 3,000 words. The tale begins with the middle-aged Mrs. Drover re-entering her long neglected London home toward the end of the World War II Blitz. Inside the house, she finds a cryptic note, apparently from her former lover who had been killed during World War I. Upon seeing this note, she recalls that he had promised to be with her precisely twenty-five years hence. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Drover is spooked. How much time passes in the story between page one and the last? Perhaps thirty minutes. Mrs. Drover enters the house, reads the letter, panics, realizes that she cannot even recall the young soldier’s face, and heads outside to fetch a cab. Entering the taxi, she finds the driver’s behavior odd.

She leaned forward to scratch at the class panel that divided the driver’s head
from her own.
The driver braked to what was almost a stop, turned round, and slid the glass
panel back: The jolt of this flung Mrs. Drover forward till her face was almost into the
glass. Through the aperture driver and passenger, not six inches between them, remained
for an eternity eye to eye. Mrs. Drover’s mouth hung open for some seconds before she
could issue her first scream. After that she continued to scream freely and to beat with her
gloved hands on the glass all round as the taxi, accelerating without mercy, made off with
her into the hinterland of deserted streets.

But in reality, was the driver’s behavior odd? He started his car as she approached. He turned around when she thought he would not do so. He started driving without receiving a destination. Yes, these are odd, but they are not inexplicable. He perhaps saw the woman in his mirror, opting to turn around to avoid traffic. We can reasonably suggest that any destination would have begun with that turn. Yes, the driver might have been some ghostly visitor but he might just as plausibly been an eager cabbie.

Bowen created a tight, ambiguous, well paced story. And what did “Shades of Darkness” do with it? First, they completely lost the tightness of the original by beginning in 1916. They inflicted a flurry of flashbacks onto the viewer. They mysteriously added a handful of characters, some of which had nothing to do with the main plot, including Mrs. Drover’s son, played by a very young Hugh Grant. One of these additional characters accompanies Mrs. Drover back to the house and witnesses the cab driving her off. But the cab was to be for both of them. All ambiguity was destroyed once the cameras began rolling.

One of the conclusions that can be drawn from this travesty is that while a good writer can make a thirty-minute scene last for 3,000 words, a poor filmmaker will instead stretch the matter with long and pointless establishing shots, irrelevant additions, and hysterical images of a face being revealed from beneath sand. How eerie!

Posted in Commentary, Irish Literature, Modernism.

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