A treat for those with a penchant for camp gothic drama, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane by Henry Farrell is the cult classic that spawned the legendary 1962 film. It chronicles the descent into madness of faded childhood vaudeville star, Baby Jane Hudson. Holed up in a crumbling mansion with her infinitely more famous actress sister, Blanche, the dysfunctional siblings’ tale is one of envy, unaddressed daddy issues, and monstrous villainy. Cinephiles will love how Farrell conjures the scenes that inspired the movie, and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford inevitably become the sisters in the reader’s mind’s eye.
Perpetually ten years old in spirit, the middle-aged Jane makes a bizarre spectacle with her dyed cherry-red ringlets offset by an enormous satin bow, and her mawkish caricature of girlish sweetness. Prone to outbursts of music hall favourites, she dwells in the glory days of 1908, when she was famous and her daddy loved her.
But it’s 1959, her parents are dead and she’s financially dependent on Blanche, who having struck lucky in the early days of Hollywood cinema, has amassed a degree of wealth and movie star status. Blanche’s acting days are long gone however, cut short some years ago by a mysterious car accident, which has left her paraplegic and reliant on Jane for almost everything.
Tensions that have been simmering their whole lives rise to a boil when one of the TV channels presents a season of Blanche’s old movies, tipping the boozy and bitterly jealous Jane into utter derangement and resulting in Blanche fearing for her very life.
A name that has slipped into relative obscurity, Farrell is excellent at psychological suspense (this edition also contains three short stories, one of which became the 1964 film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, another fine tale of horror and madness). Here, he skilfully conveys the sense that Blanche is effectively imprisoned and at the mercy of her unstable sister, who begins to play terrifying mind games and is seemingly not averse to the odd murderous impulse.
Huddled in her wheelchair, enveloped in the ‘stale-sweet smell of her own invalidism’, Blanche plans to escape by secretly putting the house up for sale, but she reckons without her sister’s scheming ways, or the startling revelation that Baby Jane Hudson has decided to launch a comeback bid. All she needs is a gentleman musical accompanist and some ready cash.
Although blessed with lashings of enjoyable melodrama, there is some nuance to Farrell’s portrayal of the two women. Jane, in particular, has some touching and melancholic scenes, lost in daydreams of the happiest days of her life, on the beach, wave-watching with Daddy.
In one soul-searching journey to the bottom of a whisky bottle, she reflects on the nature of life.
‘When the light was falling in your direction you could really believe sometimes that you had found yourself and that all the sudden brightness and aliveness was really you.’
The light has left Jane and she’s afraid.
Building up to a stirring plot twist and finale, this is the perfect lazy weekend sofa read. To be followed, surely, by the tremendously entertaining film.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane by Henry Farrell is published by Mulholland Books, 304 pages.