Wednesday, 18 August 2010

'It's Coming For Me Through The Trees': The Influence of Horror on the Work of Kate Bush


There are few other creative figures of a more distinct, visionary and idiosyncratic nature to have emerged from the music industry in the twentieth century, than that of Kate Bush. Not only is she an artist who has accomplished the rare feat of combining musical innovation with commercial success, but she is one who also managed to do so on her own terms, whilst maintaining complete creative control of her work. Bush, in the words of one critic, ‘got all the madwomen down from the attic and into the charts.’ The singer is heavily inspired by the world of art, philosophy, literature and indeed cinema, drawing upon an almost encyclopaedic array of influences. When one takes a closer look at her work, it becomes apparent that Bush is something of a horror aficionado, drawing on a number of sources to lend her compositions rich, blood-dark depth.

Out on the wiley, windy moors.
‘Wuthering Heights’ was a Gothic novel by Emily Brontë in which the conventions of the Gothic novel were reflexively explored and deconstructed as much as they were lovingly utilised. The Gothic genre of literature combines elements of horror and romance, and had a tremendous influence over early horror cinema. Bush revealed that while she had never read the novel in its entirety prior to writing her song Wuthering Heights, one of her biggest hits, she had been influenced by a film adaptation. The song is really about the events occurring towards the end of the story where Catherine has already died and is coming back as a spirit across the moors to be with Heathcliff. Bush is thought to have been touched by Catherine’s longing to never be alone, and her overwhelming desire to be with Heathcliff – even from beyond the grave.

Bush’s second album Lionheart, closes with a return to similar Gothic notions – a dark and dramatic number entitled Hammer Horror. Inspired, not only by the sensuous chills elicited by Hammer Horror movies, Bush had also been heavily influenced by the film, The Man of A Thousand Faces, in which James Cagney plays Lon Chaney playing the Hunchback of Notre Dame. This song tells the tale of an actor who is thrust into the lead role of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and ends up being haunted by a jealous Lon Chaney.

The artwork of Bush’s third album, Never For Ever, featured her dressed as a bat, mirroring the haunting appearance of Mephisto in FW Murnau’s expressionistic adaptation of the Goethe play, Faust. This image was also used on the cover of her single Breathing – a song about the fears of an unborn baby. The cover of the album features Bush with a plethora of grotesque creatures emerging out from underneath her billowing dress, hinting at all manner of fairytale-inspired nightmares. The title of this album hints at the transient nature of life and the inevitability of death – we are ‘never, for ever.’

Never For Ever contained several songs, the inspiration of which, were lifted wholesale from several ‘horror’ titles. The Wedding List, a twisted revenge narrative was inspired by Frances Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black in which five men make a young bride a widow on her wedding day. She goes on to extract her revenge, methodically killing the five men one by one. Mario Bava much?

Second is The Infant Kiss, inspired by Jack Clayton’s chilling and unsettlingly suggestive 1961 film, The Innocents (itself an adaptation of Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’). Bush’s song unfolds as the story of a governess who is frightened by the passionate feelings she has for her young male charge, who is actually revealed to be possessed by the spirit of a grown man – with whom the governess has fallen in love.

With her fourth, self produced album the dense The Dreaming, Bush conjured a truly experimental work that stunned critics and fans alike into silence. Heavily inspired by old crime movies, the life and times of illusionist Houdini and the plight of the Aborigines, Bush once again also drew on sources of horror for inspiration. The closing track Get Out Of This House was inspired by Stephen King’s chilling novel ‘The Shining.’ In this track, Bush utilises the image of the house with its labyrinthine corridors as a metaphor for her psyche. Erotic insinuations also contain hefty horror undertones, exemplified in lines such as ‘no stranger’s feet will enter me/I wash the panes/I clean the stains.’ We of course assume that as it was inspired by ‘The Shining’, the stains she refers to are blood…


Jacques Tourneur’s moody horror film Night of the Demon, and to a lesser extent Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, would form the basis of the eponymous track from Bush’s fifth album (and this writer’s favourite), Hounds of Love. Opening with a line of dialogue from Tourneur’s film, Hounds of Love unfurls as a testament to the stifling, all-consuming nature of love. No ordinary love though – this is Kate Bush after all – anthropomorphised love, appearing as a pack of hounds chasing down and ripping to shreds those who experience it – much like the titular demon from the film Bush was inspired by.

Hounds of Love is a concept album of two halves – the first weaves itself around different ideas of ‘love’, ranging from the aforementioned anthropomorphised love, to the fierce maternal love of a woman attempting to protect her murderous son (Mother Stands for Comfort). The second half – entitled The Ninth Wave – is a seven-song suite that forms a complete work: the narrative of a young woman lost at sea in the night, waiting to drown in the dark (Open Water, anyone?). As she fights to stay alive, the songs reveal her thoughts, fears and dreams.

The penultimate song on Hounds of Love, Hello Earth contains a traditional Georgian choral piece entitled Tsintskaro that swerves delicately between unattainable majesty, deep mourning and intimate contemplation and is overwhelmingly moving. Bush initially heard this piece of music in Werner Herzog’s atmospheric Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht – a film positively saturated in morose dread and exhibiting a stifling preoccupation with decay and death. A scene in the film, depicting Lucy wandering trancelike through a town square as the population, who have accepted their fate (death by plague) and decide to live their lives in stilted and debauched celebration before they die, is accompanied by this solemn, almost theistical music.

Fortunately Hounds of Love ends on a positive note as the narrator is rescued from the water at dawn.
This wouldn’t be the last time Bush dallied in the dark realms of horror though. The title track of her 1994 album The Red Shoes boasts the twisted Hans Christian Anderson based concept of a girl who puts on a pair of enchanted/cursed ballet slippers and is unable to stop dancing as a punishment for being vain. This tale also inspired the Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes and the 2005 Korean horror film, also called The Red Shoes. Anderson’s unsettling tale featured a desperate girl cursed to continue dancing, even after she was dead. In an attempt to be free, she chops her own feet off – only for them to continue dancing before her. By the end of the tale when the girl finds redemption, her heart becomes so filled with joy that it bursts, killing her instantly. Miranda Richardson appears in the accompanying video – directed by Bush – as a Mephistophelian dancer who grants the singer’s wish to be able to dance, with a high price; her soul…

9 comments:

Trick or Treat Pete said...

I adore Kate Bush. It was of her version of "Wuthering Heights" that led me to read the book, which became one of my all time favorites.
Thankyou for bringing her to the attention of people who may have not otherwise known of her.
Dreaded Dreams
Petunia Scareum

Lysergic Earwax said...

Great stuff..the section in "Hounds Of Love" which features the track from Herzog's "Nosferatu" always sends a chill down my spine!

James said...

'Hello Earth' is one of my favourite tracks by Kate Bush. And I would go as far as saying that 'Hounds of Love' is one of my all time favourite albums... Ever! Love it. :o)

Atroxion said...

Hey, I didn't know where to send this to you so I'll just leave it here. I've included your blog in my Happy 101 Award post. Check it out if you're interested. Cheers!

http://screambloodyentertainment.blogspot.com/2010/08/award-time-happy-101-award.html

James said...

Congrats on your award!! Well deserved. And cheers for the wee shout out, too.
Best wishes,
James :o)

Anonymous said...

Still a wonderful post.
But that´s no reason to comment.
Saw today "Gone to earth" P&P,1950 another influence on "Hounds of Love"
Try to get a copy,and start with "Hounds of Love 2011" on YT.
Best wishes Maren

James Gracey said...

Thanks Maren! I wasn't even aware of this film, let alone its influence on Ms Bush. I see it's directed by Michael Powell - I think Kate Bush really likes his work. Will check it out as soon as I can.
Thanks again! Hope you're well. :)

Kathleen Vallis said...

Excellent post - I've just returned from London England where I was delighted to see two of the Before the Dawn shows that had some interesting dark elements in it, particularly "Waking the Witch" from the ninth wave suite, and the treament of birds by the Puppet boy in Aerial's "Sky of Honey". The Puppet appears to kill a bird and devour it.

James Gracey said...

Hey Kathleen. I’m actually just back home from London, too – I was lucky enough to get a ticket for Before the Dawn through a friend of a friend. What a fantastic concert and an evening I shall always treasure. I loved the dark elements throughout, particularly during The Ninth Wave. I was (pleasantly!) surprised by the dark imagery during the latter part (Sky of Honey suite) too, especially the moment you mentioned with the little puppet bloodily devouring a bird. I’m hoping to post a review/gushing appreciation on here soon. Stay tuned – and thanks so much for dropping by and leaving a comment.