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Spreading a goth vision

Patrick McGrath's eerie, psychological novels are making their way to the big screen, with "Spider" in wide release next month.

January 08, 2003|Andre Chautard | Special to The Times

Outside of yarns about vampires and witches, few contemporary novelists are bold enough to attempt breathing new life into the hoary cliches of the gothic novel, which makes it all the more remarkable that Patrick McGrath seems to do it so comfortably. To be sure, the familiar tropes are there in his acclaimed fiction: gloomy, secluded houses; passionate, illicit love affairs; and spirals into guilt-ridden madness.

But the London-born McGrath weaves a modern psychological insight into his suspenseful yet highly literate tales of doom, with echoes of such forebears as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters.

"He isn't afraid of passion and darkness and romanticism," says Natasha Richardson, who will star in an upcoming film adaptation of McGrath's "Asylum." In the 1996 book -- a finalist for Britain's Whitbread fiction award -- a restless psychiatrist's wife is irresistibly drawn to the charms of a patient at the asylum where her husband works, in spite of the man's imprisonment for killing his wife in a jealous rage.

It's only natural that McGrath's eerily vivid stories are finally making their way into cinema, starting with "Spider," for which McGrath adapted his own novel, directed by David Cronenberg. (The film had a one-week Oscar-qualifying run in December and reopens in late February.)

In "Spider," a recently discharged mental patient (played by Ralph Fiennes), who goes by the titular nickname, roams the streets of London's East End, retracing the events of his childhood as he uncovers the repressed trauma that led to his institutionalization.

One might expect the author of such titles as "The Grotesque" and "Dr. Haggard's Disease" to be somewhat glum, eccentric or even tormented. But McGrath, 52, in a phone conversation from his apartment in the TriBeCa area of New York, is cheery, gracious and by all indications quite well adjusted.

"At first meeting you would never think that this is the author of such dark novels because he's just such a lovely, charming, very un-dark, un-damaged person," Richardson says. "And yet he writes so brilliantly about dark and damaged people."

McGrath found a counterpart in Cronenberg, a director of eerie films such as "Dead Ringers" (1988) and "Crash" (1996). Says Cronenberg, "People keep saying to him, 'You're such a nice, happy, positive kind of guy. Your work is so dark and despairing.' And I get that too."

Adds McGrath, "We're both very affable guys who happen to have very dark imaginations."

Childhood at the asylum

But the fact that McGrath's imagination regularly turns to insane asylums and nightmarish hallucinations -- both of which figure in much of his fiction -- isn't that surprising. From age 5, McGrath was raised on the grounds of Broadmoor, the leading hospital in Britain for the criminally insane, where his father was the medical superintendent. McGrath worked there briefly as an orderly, and later at a high-security psychiatric ward in northern Ontario.

His father's patients often had committed murder or arson. "Many of the stories that were told at the dinner table involved these spectacular crimes, and as a small boy I was drinking this stuff up," McGrath says. "And not coincidentally, I think, I began reading Edgar Allan Poe when I was about 10 years old."

McGrath studied English at the University of London, and at 27 he was living in northwestern Canada, teaching 5-year-olds. "I was no good at it," he says with a laugh. "I couldn't control them. I had discipline problems with my kindergarten class, and I knew that education was not for me. And a long-ago dream of writing fiction returned to me."

He quit teaching and began writing his stories out of a small log cabin, which he built by hand, before moving to New York and eventually wanting to try his hand at screenwriting. "It struck me as a good idea to try and expand what I had to offer," he says.

At first, McGrath thought "Spider" far too interior a story to adapt for the screen, but he started working on a script based on the suggestion of his wife, actress Maria Aitken ("A Fish Called Wanda"). "There were a lot of problems," he says. "It wasn't an easy book to adapt."

"Spider" the novel is presented as the journal of the title character, who, though delusional, describes his thoughts and experiences with great self-awareness and literary panache. Because a film would show Spider's memories with visual clarity, McGrath made the film's Spider inarticulate and disconcerted, quietly mumbling to himself.

McGrath also created a friend of sorts for Spider in the boardinghouse where he stays, and wrote a somewhat less despairing ending.

But McGrath's screenplay originally had a great deal of voice-over narration by Spider, vestiges of the novel's Spider, that seemed incongruent with the film character. Cronenberg's solution: Eliminate it completely.

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