March 10, 2021

Chopin Comes to the Carnival of Souls

By Stuart Mitchner

It is shuddersome and sinister. About it hovers the grisly something which we all fear in the dark but dare not define.

—James Huneker on Chopin’s Prelude No. 2

When a film is called Night of the Living Dead, you know what to expect. Same with The Walking Dead. Given the Hitchcock brand and half a century of shower-slaughter word of mouth, you know where you’re headed with Psycho.

Carnival of Souls is another matter. The film’s title alone has intriguing possibilities, with room for whatever or whoever you want to bring to the dance, if you don’t mind fox-trotting or waltzing to sinister organ music reminiscent of NBC’s Inner Sanctum, the old time radio precursor to The Twilight Zone. The horror movie genre it has been consigned to is less interesting to me than the title’s suggestion of a gathering of souls. In my preferred vision of the carnival, the doors are open to great souls like Kafka and Chopin, whose 211th birthday was March 1.

Keeping in mind the rhetoric Chopin’s sometimes “shuddersome and sinister” music has attracted — the “affinities with the darkling conceptions” of Poe and Coleridge in the Scherzo in C-sharp minor that James Huneker likens to “some fantastic, sombre pile of disordered farouche architecture” about which “hovers perpetual night and the unspeakable and despairing things that live in the night” — I’ve been thinking a lot about Carnival of Souls and its protagonist, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). Having survived an accident in which two friends drowned, Mary moves from Lawrence, Kansas, to Salt Lake City, where she has a job as a church organist. She’s in a department store buying a new dress when suddenly the world goes silent, sales people and other customers no longer see her, she can’t hear them, they can’t hear her, and after escaping outside she’s still in the silent spell until a bird’s song brings the real world back to life for her. 

Going directly from that nightmare to the church organ,  she begins to rehearse, but the sounds she’s producing soon veer into dissonance and discord that she’s helpless to control, it’s as if her hands have taken on a spasmodic life of their own, crawling and creeping over the keys, and when two large hands reach out of nowhere to cover hers, you think at first they belong to the ghoulish figure that’s been stalking her. But no, it’s the appalled minister putting a stop to the profane uproar before pompously firing her on the spot. A day ago he’d praised her playing, telling her to put her soul into it, and so she has but it’s not her soul.

The sequence takes only four of the film’s 80 minutes, and I’ve seen it several times on YouTube, trying to imagine the impact on the minister had certain portions of Chopin’s B flat minor sonata been translated into the language of the pipe organ, a sonata that Schumann says “begins and ends … with dissonances, through dissonances, and in dissonances,” not to mention “the brief, astonishing finale, a coda to the famous marche funebre suggesting that the departing mourners were swept away by a tornado.”    Scarily akin to the sight of Mary’s hands is a fellow pianist and composer’s account of Chopin at the piano: “It was an astonishing sight to see one of his little hands reach out and cover a third of the key-board. It was like the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit. In reality, Chopin was made of rubber.”

The first piece I associated with Mary’s trauma was the Polonaise fantasie in A flat major that Franz Liszt described in an 1852 monograph as “an elegiac tristesse … punctuated by startled movements, melancholic smiles, unexpected jolts, pauses full of tremors, like those felt by somebody caught in an ambush, surrounded on all sides.” To a critic of the period, “the piano speaks here in a language not previously known.” When he was working on the Polonaise, Chopin himself admitted he didn’t know what to title it until the end, confessing, “I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call.” He completed it in August 1846, three years before his death.

The Noblest Nocturne

Just now watching Mary lose hold of reality in the department store, and the moment the bird sang the world back again, I thought of the first three minutes of Chopin’s Nocturne in C minor. What happens after that is, technically speaking, a demanding doppio movimento agitato that features “fortissimo octave passages and double octave arpeggios,” after which the “piece ends with a reprise of the initial melody with extremely fast chordal accompaniment.” What to say. It’s a world, a whole Carnival of Souls in music, including the freak-out on the organ and dance of the dead and the pursuit of poor Mary at the end. In six and a half minutes you get it all and you run upstairs hoping to find words for it, and end, as usual, by resorting to writers like James Huneker, who mainly scorns the nocturnes as “degraded beauty.” The one great exception is the C sharp minor, “the gloomiest and grandest of Chopin’s moody canvases,” with its “middle section Beethovian in breadth.” The best another critic could do is observe that “the design and poetic contents of this nocturne make it the most important one that Chopin created; the chief subject a masterly expression of a great powerful grief.”

Actually, my favorite is on the YouTube blog of responses to Jan Lisiecki’s performance, where the young pianist is praised for his “thick, blond, shiny, lush” hair and compared to “the kid who plays piano in Peanuts.” The anonymous blogger writes “OH! All you horrible little toads! A piano is just a bunch of ‘bones.’ if you will. Technique does not make the instrument ‘sing.’ I don’t know where it comes from, but the music actually pours through your body and out your fingers when you touch the keys.”

Rising to Dance

In his essay for the Criterion edition of Carnival of Souls, Bruce Kawin suggests that “the one place” in the film “allowed to be blatantly creepy” is “the amusement park where ghosts rest under the water and rise to dance.” The rest of the world “appears both normal and somehow wrong” and part of what’s wrong is that it’s seen from the point of view of its haunted protagonist, Mary Henry: “For she has gone wrong, and the world with her.”

Introducing the film, also for Criterion, writer John Clifford says it began when director Herk Harvey described “a strange outdoor ballroom he’d seen rotting on the shores of the Great Salt Lake” and “said he’d like to make a film about creatures rising from the lake and doing a dance of death in this pavilion.” Clifford’s “writer’s secret,” his explanation of the hold the film has on its fans, was to give “the heroine no real sympathy or understanding from any other character.”

That’s my cue to bring on this week’s mystery guest. I’ve been looking for an excuse to quote from Kafka’s diaries ever since his appearance on election night when the outcome was still unclear. The passage that suggests an understanding of the film’s isolated, tormented heroine is dated March 9, 1922: “How would it be if one were to choke to death on oneself? If the pressure of introspection were to diminish, or close off entirely, the opening through which one flows forth into the world. I am not far from it at times. A river flowing upstream … ”

But now, after a year of pandemic horror, I was struck by  an undated passage displayed on the back on the Schocken paperback of Diaries 1914-1923:

“The hardships of living together. Forced upon us by strangeness, pity, lust, cowardice, vanity, and only deep down, perhaps, a thin little stream worthy of the name of love, impossible to seek out, flashing once in the moment of a moment.”

Time for a spoiler alert, even though Carnival of Souls has been rescued from obscurity and is now ranked among the classics of the genre. Kafka’s metaphors “a river flowing upstream” and “a thin little stream” are all too fitting, given that the last shot of the film shows Mary Helen’s body next to those of her two friends in the car being dredged up from the Kaw River.