A thief in the night

‘Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter’ (Holbein’s Dance of Death / The Astrologer)

Edgar Allan Poe: The Masque of the Red Death (1842)
in Tales of Mystery and Imagination
Everyman 1975 (1908)

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal—the redness and horror of blood.

Of Poe’s many Gothick tales this is one of the foremost and famous, and it unsurprisingly stuck in my mind more than the others I read many years ago. And why, especially when there’s so little to the plot?

Essentially Prince Prospero holes up in a castle with a load of his friends and plenty of provisions, leaving the populace outside to die from a horrible plague — after half a year he throws a masked ball in a suite of rooms — yet Death still manages to enter the castle, regardless of quarantine.

Given the coronavirus crisis it seemed an appropriate time to read this short story, especially as I forgot to mention it in a previous post about literary treatments of contagion until another blogger’s comment brought it back to mind.

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A shiver down the spine

Jen Campbell:
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Two Roads 2018 (2017)

A dozen short stories do not a novel make — this last was what the author’s agent was originally expecting, but at least she didn’t shout when informed otherwise. Yet for all that these are diverse pieces – some, one suspects, semi-autobiographical, others sweet, yet more being fractured fairytales or freeform musings – they share themes and points of view which, in a weird way, could connect them into one long rambling narrative.

In fact the epigraph quotes Frankenstein’s Creature declaring, in the hopes of his creator furnishing him with a mate, that “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” This suggests that there are indeed connections between these tales, however curious and eccentric they may appear if we are expecting conventional narratives; but it also hints at a personal apologia. A self-declared queer writer with physical deformities, Jen Campbell brings a distinct perspective into her writing while managing to render her stories universal, a task that she somehow manages effortlessly. Or so it appears.

I shall avoid listing and discussing all twelve tales as being an arid exercise; instead I want to draw out from a select few the aspects that appealed to me most in the expectation that you may find my remarks useful.

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Bad and dangerous

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

John Polidori: The Vampyre: a Tale (1819)
and a Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron (1816)
in Three Gothic Novels (edited by E F Bleiler)
Dover 1966

Buttressed by an editor’s introduction, the author’s own introduction, an extract from a later letter to Polidori’s publisher, and Byron’s original vampire tale fragment, this — the first completed modern vampire story in English — already contains many of the clichés now expected from the genre. Here is the pale nobleman with a dark secret, and here the young female victims; not unexpected is the vampire’s resurrection after death and the connection with Eastern Europe and the Levant.

But you can forget any mentions of bats, sinister castles or pointy teeth, though there are allusions to stakes, peasant huts, antiquarian structures and blood all over a victim’s neck and breast. Whether these are enough to summon up a vicarious thrill in the reader will really depend on how much one empathises with the characters depicted and the degree to which one is susceptible or immune to High Gothick style and sensibility.

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Infernal visions

Ruins of gatehouse and keep of inner ward, Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Jeannette Ng: Under the Pendulum Sun
Angry Robot Books 2017

“Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone’s eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters.”
— from the abstract to J M S Tompkins, ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ Brontë Society Transactions Volume 14, 1961, Issue 1

I very much wanted to like this novel. Described as a ‘gothic fantasy with a theological twist’ Under a Pendulum Sun paraded a magnificent range of tropes and themes for our enjoyment, all centred around that staple Gothick cliché, the mysterious castle. In the 1840s Catherine Helstone travels from her native Yorkshire into the North Sea, en route to the realm that her missionary brother, Laon, has chosen to proselytise. This realm is called Arcadia, also known as the land of the Fae, what we now call fairies. But forget the little people with gauze-like wings from nursery tales, these are more altogether more mysterious, even sinister: and do they even have souls to save?

Jeanette Ng has, uniquely it seems, wedded together two unconnected themes, fairyland and theology, to produce a hybrid that’s pregnant with possibilities. She’s added into the mix the age-old British imperialist dream which in the 19th century sailed under the flags of free trade and converting heathens; she’s then buttressed her narrative with faux extracts from 19th-century texts each prefacing a chapter. So far so intriguing. But then the more we hear of Catherine, the narrator of the story, her secretive brother, a companion Ariel Davenport, castle servants Benjamin Goodfellow and the housekeeper known as the Salamander, plus a rarely glimpsed woman in black, the more mysteries the plot reveals. That’s all before we come to Mab, the Queen of the Fae, and her subjects.

I had high hopes for this unconventional fairytale set in a land with its own out-of-kilter cosmology (the sun really does swing from a Pendulum, and the moon, well, let’s just say it’s unexpected). That I wasn’t entirely won over is not because of the multiplicity of themes — which in fact was what most entertained me and kept me going — but because of other crucially important aspects of successful novel writing. Before I come to those negatives I want to apologise for the longer-than-usual digressions which now follow.

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“The dark side of human nature”

Das Eismeer (1823-4) by Caspar David Friedrich

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
The 1818 text edited with introduction and notes by Marilyn Butler 1993
Oxford World’s Classics 1998

“[A] tale so strange, that I should fear you would not credit it, were there not something in truth which, however wonderful, forces conviction. The story is too connected to be a dream, and I have no motive for falsehood.” — Victor Frankenstein recounting the story so far, Volume III Chapter 6

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was first published on March 11th 1818,* and for two hundred years has never been out of print. Popular culture has led us to picture the Creature as portrayed by Boris Karloff (despite the name, an English actor called William Henry Pratt) in numerous films and parodies; but readers new to the novel might be surprised to first find themselves in the Arctic wastes, as revealed in a series of letters from Robert Walton to his sister Mrs Margaret Saville. He writes from St Petersburgh (sic), then Archangel (Arkhangelsk), and then from somewhere in the polar regions.

As we quickly discover, though, this is merely a framing device; the author then introduces us to Victor Frankenstein marooned on an ice floe. We no sooner get to what appears to be the meat of the story when we realise that Victor’s narrative is also a framing device, with the Creature’s story at the heart of it. And at the heart of the Creature’s story we read about a penniless French family, the De Laceys. Frankenstein is, structurally, nothing less than Russian matryoshka dolls, one nesting inside the other. Once we grasp this we can begin to rid ourselves of the popular modern stereotypes and start to come to grips with Shelley’s original, in its first incarnation as it were.

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To savour, and to save

The Human Eye (credit: http://thegraphicsfairy.com/vintage-clip-art-eye-diagram/)

Joan Aiken: A Bundle of Nerves:
stories of horror, suspense and fantasy

Cover illustration Peter Goodfellow
Peacock (Penguin) Books 1978 (1976)

Nineteen short stories are collected here, the majority originally appearing in Argosy — a British magazine which appeared between 1926 and 1974 and for which Joan Aiken was Features Editor (from 1955 to 1960). They are indeed ‘stories of horror, suspense and fantasy’, and though rather mild — if occasionally racy — by today’s tastes they were, and still are, perfect for the young teenage readership the collection aims at.

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In darkest New England

country road

Collections of short stories can complicate the reader’s fiction experience. In particular, when the pieces are drawn from a range of the writer’s oeuvre — even when especially selected because they share a theme — they may vary in tone, in pace, in quality and in length, and may thus lack the uniformity of style and purpose that a single novel usually supplies. And this may only be the start of possible difficulties for the reader.

One way to bypass such anxieties could be to only consider the stories on a one by one basis. Thus it is that I am spreading out my appreciation of two writers by only reading single pieces interspersed with longer work by other writers. Angela Carter’s Black Venus tales (also published as Saints and Strangers) and a collection of H P Lovecraft’s horror stories entitled The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (edited by S T Joshi) are being enjoyed singly in between my tackling other longer works. And two of these pieces I’ve selected as being the last of my 2016 Reading New England choices. (This, you may remember, is one of Lory Hess’ challenges on her Emerald City Book Review blog, due to end on the 31st December.)

Let me introduce you to them.

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When the hurlyburly’s done

1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont
1940s freak show, Rutland, Vermont

Ray Bradbury Something Wicked This Way Comes
Gollancz 2008 (1962)

This is a haunting novel, a haunting not necessarily due to ghosts but to images and ideas lingering in the mind’s eye long after the last page is shut. The title (taken from words spoken by the Second Witch in Macbeth) sets the tenor of the story, as much a novel of magic realism as it is a tale of terror. The horror is compounded by being set in an ordinary and very provincial early 1930s town in Illinois where, one is supposed to assume, nothing much happens. Continue reading “When the hurlyburly’s done”

Happy Families

Master Bones

Doris Lessing The Fifth Child
Paladin 1989 (1988)

A curious novella, this, and a horror story of sorts. Beginning in a Swinging-Sixties England — when David and Harriet meet and fall in love — it traces the story of how the couple attempt to set up a model suburban Happy Family in the face of disapproval from their own families who, irony of ironies, have their own problems of failed relationships. As Harriet and David produce four offspring one after another their large house becomes a popular venue for the extended family and friends during the long school holidays; with childcare help from Harriet’s mother and financial support from David’s father this otherwise unsustainable operation limps along from year to year. Until Harriet discovers she’s expecting a fifth child.

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Dream-like and disorientating

mist

Carlos Ruiz Zafón The Prince of Mist
Orion Children’s Books 2010
Translated from the Spanish by Lucia Graves
(El principe de la niebla 1993)

The fiction of Ruiz Zafón reminds me of dreams bordering on nightmare. Everything is vague: geography (even when set in a well-known city like Barcelona), supporting characters (especially when they appear able to anticipate the protagonist’s mood and thoughts) and time (even when we’re given a specific year and month in which the story takes place). Disjointed places and sequences cause confusion and disquiet in dreams; in novels they can also be frustrating and irritating. Ultimately I found The Prince of Mist — the author’s first novel, in this instance for a young adult readership — as unsatisfying as the dream-like adult novels he is more famous for; unsatisfying because they are full of manufactured mysteries as insubstantial to the grasp as shadows, winds and mists. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

It is June, 1943, and it is Max Carver’s 13th birthday. His father Maximilian, a watchmaker, gives his family some unwelcome news: they all — Maximilian and wife Andrea, along with Alicia, Max and Irina — have to leave the city and relocate to a small village on what appears to be the Atlantic coast. At journey’s end, after three hours on the train, they arrive at a seaside station — only to be joined by a mysterious stray cat, who seems to have adopted them.

Further mysteries await: Continue reading “Dream-like and disorientating”

The beast without and within

landscape

Tim Winton In the Winter Dark Picador 2003 (1988)

This bleak novella is set in an isolated valley called the Sink, somewhere in Western Australia. The inhabitants of three houses — Maurice and Ida Stubbs, Murray Jaccob and Ronnie Melwater — all have secrets which, in the normal run of things, would just stay secrets. Except, with the arrival of an unseen predator which starts attacking livestock — a dog, geese, ducks, a goat, a kangaroo, sheep — these secrets come creeping out of their past, into their dreams and out into reality. What is this predator? A feral cat? A mange-ridden fox? Wild dogs? A Big Cat escaped from a circus trailer? Or something more rare, something out of the Southern Continent’s dark prehistory? And how does its unpredictable presence impact on the guilty feelings of individuals and their relationships with each other?

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Fiction most foul

mansion

The creative writing course I’m attending, looking at various genres, this week turned from Gothick horror to 20th-century Horror fiction, though not without a look first at 19th-century antecedents. These included Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Stoker’s Dracula (1897), James’ The Turn of the Screw (1898) and, not long after the turn of the century, Blackwood’s The Empty House (1903). Even a short romp through these key titles reveals a singular lack of female authors.

However, one female writer whose name did crop up in discussion was
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Fathering Gothick

NPG 6520; Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds by Sir Joshua Reynolds oil on canvas, circa 1756-1757 NPG 6520 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds (oil on canvas, circa 1756-1757): the father of Gothick
NPG 6520 licenced for non-commercial use © National Portrait Gallery, London

We’ve come to regard the late 17th and early 18th centuries as the Age of Enlightenment, a period when science and rational thought were promoted as philosophical ideals in Europe. Come the mid-18th century there was the inevitable backlash, of sorts, and particularly in the arts. A kind of romanticism — before that term came into being in the closing years of the 18th century — was in the air, and in Britain its epitome may be seen in the strange figure of Horace Walpole.

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Apprentice psychopomp

roof boss
Grotesque roof boss, Southwark Cathedral, London

Chris Westwood Ministry of Pandemonium
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2011

A sensitive boy who frequents graveyards. Who sees the spirits of the recently departed. Who displays extraordinary artistic gifts. Who finds it hard to make friends when he starts a new school. And a boy whose father has mysteriously disappeared and a mother who is seriously ill. In other words, a youngster who fulfils many of the prime requirements for the outsider protagonist of a novel. This is Ben Harvester, who is drawn into a world of ghosts and demons and, in the process, discovers the latent abilities he has arising out of that sensitivity, a sensitivity that encompasses both his artistic gifts and his concern for those less well off than himself.

Through a rather odd stranger, Mr October  — whose name conjures up that witching period of Halloween or Samhain, with its feasts of the dead — Ben is introduced to the secret Ministry of Pandemonium. As you might expect from a word coined by Milton for Paradise Lost, this synonym for disorder and chaos simply means “all the demons”. It transpires that the Ministry’s job is to locate lost souls and open the door to another world for them before demons gets to them — no easy task given the magnitude of the task. Will Ben manage to put off his inquisitive new friend Becky Sanborne before she discovers his unlikely calling? And what is the secret of his mother’s exhaustion and the explanation for his father’s disappearance? Continue reading “Apprentice psychopomp”

Spine tingles

chill
Haunting bedtime reading?

Joan Aiken A Touch of Chill:
Stories of Horror, Suspense and Fantasy

Fontana Lions 1981 (1979)

These fifteen short stories, six published for the first time in this collection, are full of mystery and surprises, not least because UK and US editions feature — apart from a core of eight — different selections. I first read these tales in the early eighties, but apart from the odd déjà-vu moment I regret I didn’t remember any of them in this reread — my failing, not Joan Aiken’s, because these are wonderfully dark narratives.

I don’t know who made the final choice for the order of the UK edition but it was curious that pairs of succeeding stories are often linked — witches both black and white, Irish or Welsh characters, youngsters climbing through windows, murder intentional or otherwise, sinister automatons, and finally tales which somehow become true. But despite commonalities each story is very different, very distinct. Continue reading “Spine tingles”