“My hideous progeny”

Death mask of William Burke and life mask of William Hare (1828) in Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (March 2018)

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.

“His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handywork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade; that this thing, which had received such imperfect animation, would subside into dead matter; and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench for ever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life.

“He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”

— Mary Shelley’s walking dream, from her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein

If Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) can truly be said to concern life and death, the afterlife of the Creature is one that continues to affect us two centuries later. For us moderns the Creature impacts as much as that of that waking dream she was later to describe. She’d been trying to think up a ghost story to rival those of Byron, Shelley and Polidori:

One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror — one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart. If I did not accomplish these things, my ghost story would be unworthy of its name. I thought and pondered — vainly. I felt that blank incapability of invention which is the greatest misery of authorship, when dull Nothing replies to our anxious invocations.

Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.

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I wonder how the young Mary Shelley would have reacted to the knowledge that her novel Frankenstein would still be attracting interest two centuries after its first appearance. Would she have been amused or bemused to see a report like this?

You will remember the social media frenzy after The Sun accused students sympathising with Frankenstein’s Creature as ‘snowflakes’. The paper was rightly ridiculed for its anti-intellectual stance and apparent misunderstanding of Mary Shelley’s intentions. The story refused to be a 24-hour flash in the pan, however, as the paper tried to mount an indefensible rearguard action.

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This post has no title

Ross-on-Wye bookshop

You know how it is. You make yourself a resolution that you will or won’t do something. Then you yield just a little to temptation. Before you know it you’re in full flight to somewhere where you weren’t planning on going to be heading in the first place.

So it was with reading challenges / goals. I wasn’t really going to do any this year. Except read more. Then I succumbed to one that I wasn’t going to take too seriously. And then …

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Parallel lines

How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?

I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?

I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.

I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.

So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?

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Degrees of separation

Do you find that, mysteriously, the books you have recently been reading are somehow linked, one to another? I’ve noted this before, but was reminded of it by Helen of She Reads Novels when she drew attention to the Six Degrees of Separation Meme hosted by https://booksaremyfavoriteandbest.wordpress.com

How does this meme work when applied to books?

Books can be linked in obvious ways – for example, books by the same authors, from the same era or genre, or books with similar themes or settings. Or, you may choose to link them in more personal or esoteric ways: books you read on the same holiday, books given to you by a particular friend, books that remind you of a particular time in your life, or books you read for an online challenge.

The great thing about this meme is that each participant can make their own rules. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the ones next to them in the chain.

Well, without officially signing up to this exercise I thought it would be interesting to see how that might apply to books I’ve read and reviewed in the past few months, and then see where that got me. So here goes.

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Joan Aiken and King Arthur

Sugar Loaf (Y Fâl / Mynydd Pen-y-fâl) at an elevation of nearly 600 metres in the Black Mountains

Joan Aiken’s award-winning novel The Whispering Mountain is chockfull of Arthurian allusions, some of which I’ve adverted to in previous posts. Here is where I bring these and other relevant themes together to point out how thoroughly this book is soaked in what used to be called the Matter of Britain. The usual caveat applies in this as in all my other discussions of the James III sequence: spoilers, minor and major, are more than likely.

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Knee-jerks and books

Fleet Street in London looking east towards St Paul’s Cathedral. Photograph by James Valentine, c.1890 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future.” — Ray Bradbury

In Europe in recent years we seem to have suffered a number of terrorist attacks without precedent, along with reports of covert interference in the internal politics of several nations by foreign powers. It’s easy, I’d imagine, to believe that things are worse than they have ever been but history shows that international espionage, anarchist acts (“the propaganda of the deed”), political assassinations and terrorist atrocities are nothing new.

In fact it’s not just history text books that reflect on attempts to upset the established order, benign or malign as it may be. So does fiction, and it’s interesting to look at novels that come out of a particular period, such as fin-de-siècle London and the years before the Great War, to see how past generations of writers reacted to acts of aggression in times of perceived peace.

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