Archive for the ‘Gothic’ Category

  This is an absolute gem of a read – or more likely a listen, as Pullman wrote it for Audible as a free giveaway at some point. That’s how I collected it – see what I did there? – and it’s been lurking in my library ever since and today I thought I may as well read it.
It is a delight!

Don’t be put off by the reviews which talk about it as a prequel to His Dark Materials trilogy, even though it probably does work as that. It is at heart a self-contained, delicious and creepy horror story which is very reminiscent of M. R. James and Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Boy in particular.

Academics and art collectors with their own little petty squabbles and rivalries. Mysterious objects being found and horrific incidents occurring, apparently through their agency. Or maybe coincidence.

The objects in question are a portrait of an enigmatic and beautiful woman and the sculpture of a repugnant and malicious monkey. That’s the connection with His Dark Materials: it’s a young Marissa van Zee before she became Mrs Coulter and her monkey dæmon. But that’s almost beside the point. This is just a cracking good classic gothic yarn!

By golly, Pullman can write!

And as an extra bonus, it’s read by Bill Nighy!

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 The second Thursday Next book picks up immediately after the end of The Eyre Affair and is a fun and joyful thing! A bit of lovely fluff: light, quick and just fun. 

It does perhaps suffer from its role in the series: The Eyre Affair was pretty self-contained; it has spawned a series of – I don’t know how many – books. This book feels like a bridge between a stand-alone and the series. It expands the basic concept of entering into and exiting a book but, whereas the first book required a device to do so, it has become an innate ability by this one.  Yes, there were moments in the first which prepared you for this, but it’s a huge extension of the scope of the narrative. 

The plot takes a little while to get going and feels almost secondary to the concept. A copy of the lost Shakespeare play is discovered; the villainous mega-corporation continue to be, well, villainous; a series of increasingly bizarre coincidences nearly kill Thursday. But don’t. And, almost as an afterthought, the world’s coming to an end. No one seems terribly concerned about that: it just hangs there in the plot. Mentioned occasionally. 

Losses accrue, and they are quite heartfelt, to be honest. But there’s a sneaky suspicion that it’s all rather reversible. In a universe where dodos and Neanderthals and mammoths have been recreated, and extinctions reversed, an individual death seems less weighty than it should somehow. 

Anyway, the heart of the book is The Library: a metaphysical collection of all the books that are, were, will be or might have been written are. And the interchange, I suppose, between fictional and real worlds. A transmetaphorical border control, if you like. Those who can read themselves into books can access the library and vice versa. And from the library, you or your fictional friend could pop into any written world. Imagine holiday img in Hamlet‘s Elsinore or sharing a pot of tea with Sherlock Holmes, Magwitch or Mina Harker. 

Or being partnered with the somewhat cantankerous and redoubtable Miss Havisham to police the fictional worlds. 

Is this a metaphysical exploration of the boundaries of the real and fictional worlds, exploring the impact of both on the other and the vexing question of identity? No. Not at all. It’s fun and quirky and – as a reader – somewhat self-indulgent but… to be honest… what’s wrong with that?

Enjoy!

   

Okay. 

I’m going to ‘fess up here. 

This is no great work of fiction. This is not a literary masterpiece. It is neither lyrical, resonant or thought-provoking – those three adjectives appearing more and more regularly on my blog as praise-words for novels. It does not sparkle with intriguing new metaphors; its prose does not ring with the clarity of a bell; its characters rarely emerge beyond sketchy two-dimensionality. 

If you’re looking for these things, you’ll not find them in this book and you’ll be disappointed. 

If, however, you’re looking for a good, rollicking, fun burst of inventiveness, you’ll be happy. 

This is the second of Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne series and cracks straight on from the first, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. The same alternate reality Albertian London re-appears; the same range of inventively steampunk mechanisms and genetically engineered swans, dogs and parakeets return to fill its streets, run messages and transport people. This time, they are added to by insect carcasses, grown to immense sizes, hollowed out, powered by steam and used as public and personal transport. The VW Beetle becomes very literal! We are also re-acquainted with the familiar historical cameos of Lord Palmerston, Oscar Wylde, Charles Babbage, Isembard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale. These are now supplemented with Burke and Hare in a less grave-robbing incarnation than you might expect and the philosopher Herbert Spencer. 

Hodder uses this second book to expand both the geography and mythology of his world: we see beyond London to the Tichborne estate; we learn of three giant black diamonds with mysterious and mystical powers. Fragments of these diamonds had been used in Spring-Heeled Jack’s time travelling suit in the first book; two are recovered through this one. The third book is clearly set up as a rescue mission to recover the third and final diamond. 

As to the core plot here, it revolves around the real legal scandal – for more details of which you can read here – in which a purportedly lost aristocrat returns to reclaim his title. Apparently, despite overwhelming evidence against him which led to both his claim failing and a criminal case for fraud against him, the affair roused popular opinions and the imposter received immense public support. 

Hodder develops a unique explanation for the support his version of the Claimant received. An explanation which involves mediums, wraiths, a horde of abjectly apologetic and verbose zombies as well as the black diamonds. 

The battle towards the end of the book where the “well dressed, debonair and faultlessly polite” walking dead – who are absent for most of the book – have their day, apologising all the while, is ridiculously fun. 

“I’m mortified,” one of them confessed as he jammed his fingers into a constable’s eye sockets. “This really is most despicable behaviour and I offer my sincerest apologies.”

Yes, the humour detracts from the tension in the climactic battle. But it’s fun!

Hodder’s imagination clearly steers towards the large-than-life and the grotesque – the Claimant himself is the obvious example. But he writes with enthusiasm and, I imagine, a broad grin. Is his dialogue convincing? No, not really. Is the description of Burton as “the famous explorer” too often repeated? Probably. Are his characters any more than over-drawn cardboard cutouts? Not particularly. Could you drive a horse and cart through plot holes? Probably, if you were so inclined. 

Does it matter in this case?

Not a jot!

It reminds me of The Avengers: over-the-top, very silly in places and hugely enjoyable. 



Sedgwick has been on my radar for a few years now, creeping into the shortlists for the Carnegie Medal regularly. I’d previously read his White Crow, and Midwinterblood. The first of those I had thoroughly enjoyed, bouncing between time zones; the second was breathtaking, tracing echoes of a story back through generations and encompassing wartime escapes, ghost stories and vampires, all with a mythic resonance. 

My Swordhand Is Singing is in many ways simpler than either of those: the structure is a straight forward chronological one; the narrative is strongly plot-driven; the language is sparse and economical.

The novel revolves around a father and son, Tomas and Peter, itinerant woodcutters who have settled in a small village called Chust in a Central European setting. In the vicinity of Romania. Or Transylvania.

Sedgwick, for me, captured two things effectively in this novel: the brooding presence of Mother Forest in which humanity is trying to carve out its niche; and the ritualised superstitions the villagers used to protect themselves from the oncoming winter. The tar daubed on houses. Hawthorn briars thrown into graves. The wedding of the dead. The haunting song of the dead, The Miorita. This is a community to which fear clung closely: the practical fear of a hard winter; the suspicious fear of strangers; the superstitious fear of the dead rising. 

Because this is, at heart, a vampire tale – and that may well have been one reason why I had allowed it to slip down my to-be-read pile. Young Adult. Vampire. The fear of reliving the torture that was reading Twilight may have allowed other books to overshadow this one. 



But, I could not have been more wrong! Sedgwick’s undead “hostages” are as far removed from Edward Cullen – or indeed Stoker’s Dracula – as you could want. He does not dwell too long on the descriptions of the undead but they are bloated corpses, twisted by jealousy and malevolence towards the living, more reminiscent of zombies than either the urbane Dracula or the glittery Cullens. 

There are some confusions, I felt, in the depiction of the vampires. Characters told us that they returned to their homes after death, leaving their wives pale and weak – nodding the Lucy Westenra; or cunning enough to pretend to be another person. Yet there was a bestiality to them when we saw them and a bloodlust which seemed just a little jarring. 

This may be the result of Sedgwick’s deliberate attempt to create a vampire tale consistent with its earliest roots. He has clearly done his research and helpfully includes an Author’s Note listing all the names they are known by: krvoijac, vukodlak, wilkolak, varcolac, vurvolak, liderc nadaly, liougat, kulkutha, moroii, strigoii, murony, streghoi, vrykolakoi, upir, dschuma, velku dlaka, nachzehrer, zaloznye, nosferatu. I knew some of these already – and can see potential derivations of The Brucolac, the vampire lord from China Miéville’s The Scar – and nearly broke autocorrect copying them out! I do wonder whether the effort to reconcile such divergent original stories explains for some of the slight contradictions. 

There is a presence in the novel of the Shadow Queen who, even within the universe of the novel, occupies a space  between myth and superstition. This novel’s sequel, The Kiss Of Death, picks up on Peter’s quest to find her. There’s certainly enough here to make me keep an eye out for that one, although, set in Venice, away from the primitive world of Mother Forest, it would have a very different tone. 

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Anthony Horowitz, for me as an English teacher is almost synonymous with his teenage spy Alex Rider. Although probably with fewer helicopters, assassins and explosions. And more writing. The series is a very boy friendly, speedily paced series of novels which are one out go-to series for reluctant boy-readers. So it was with some surprise and not a little interest that I discovered, on reading the afterword essay following The House Of Silk, that his career includes Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie and Foyle’s War.

Apparently, this is the first officially sanctioned new Holmes novel – sanctioned by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. And what is clear from reading it is that Horowitz knows his Holmes! Knows him well! So well he even includes a quiz at the end of his afterword. I got 6 / 10. Could do better. He also includes frequent references to other novels and short stories: The Red Headed League. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. These are all explicit and fleeting, nothing which would put off a newcomer to Holmes but a pleasing nod to the canon for those readers familiar with it.

Horowitz’ tone and structure is also pretty authentic. I mean, I don’t profess to be a Holmes expert, but the familiarity of the opening scene – Holmes at 221b Baker Street astounding Watson with his deductions as we await a fateful knock at the door – takes you straight back to The Hound of The Baskervilles. Similarly, the length of time spent without Holmes, his disappearance from the narrative, the intertwining of two apparently unrelated plots, the time devoted to other characters giving their own stories in their own voices all felt delightfully familiar. In fact, if anything, characters seemed to be falling over themselves to tell their stories.

I usually don’t worry too much about spoilers but a Holmes novel does require a certain delicacy, I suppose. So let’s instead look at some of the ingredients Horowitz has added to his mix: an art dealer haunted by a vengeful figure from America; a corpse discovered in a hotel room; the Baker Street Irregulars and a charitable school; and, of course, the eponymous House of Silk. We also have the familiar cast: Lestrade, Mycroft and Mrs Hudson. And a mysterious nighttime assignation with an unnamed yet urbane criminal figure. As Horowitz’ sequel is named Moriarty, I think we can make certain assumptions!

These last few years have been golden ones for Holmes fans: BBC’s Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is a delight; Robert Downey Jr’s films are fun. Horowitz’ Holmes, though, does seem far closer to Jeremy Brett than his more modern counterparts. I have to say that, in my head, some of Holmes’ dialogue was read in Brett’s lugubrious tones. Stiller, calmer than the somewhat frenetic Messrs Cumberbatch and Downey. Maybe hearing Brett’s voice intone Holmes’ words is a tribute to Horowitz’ writing; maybe it just reveals how impressionable my mind was when, as a child, I saw Brett in The Hound of The Baskervilles.

So, returning to Horowitz, I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was, possibly, a little too self-conscious of its place as part of the canon and maybe a little too reverential. But perhaps that is the nature of all pastiches: without that reverence for the source material it would become a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes rather than a Sherlock Holmes novel.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes novels, it transpires that a lost Holmes short story has been discovered in Selkirk, Scotland, written to raise money for a bridge. See here for the full report.

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I feel as if I’ve known of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for ever. The Headless Horseman. The midnight ride. The pumpkin.

I knew that – however much I loved it – the Tim Burton and Johnny Depp film took massive liberties… And even more liberties in the Fox network series Sleepy Hollow which was enjoyable enough brain candy.

But it was only when Audible offered me the audiobook for free that I came to realise that I’d never actually read the original.

It is only a small book – only just over an hour as an audiobook – and the Headless Horseman only makes a brief appearance. The story is, however, wonderful! Irving’s language and description of both the countryside and his protagonist are exquisitely ridiculous.

The long descriptions of the abundance of the Van Tassel farmlands was fantastic: rich, sensuous and genuinely funny.

Ichabod Crane is neither a sceptical police constable nor a defecting British soldier. He is, in fact, a gangly, socially inept, romantically hopelessly ambitious school teacher. A pedant who revels in and wholeheartedly believes the dark and otherworldly stories that abound in Sleepy Hollow. Everything about Ichabod Crane was ridiculous: his gluttony, his appearance, his romance with Katrina van Tassell, his rivalry with Brom ‘Bones’, his superstitious credulity, his horsemanship. And yet he was quite touchingly mocked and satirised by Irving.

The end of the story of wonderfully balanced in that Irving never makes it clear whether the horseman is real or not.

A fabulously quirky, funny and yet genuinely quite chilling read.

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Ahhh, Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker winning The Luminaries. It’s certainly not a quick read!

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It took such a time to read it – and admittedly my reading coincided with a stroppy baby and a hectic few weeks at work – that the beautiful cover started to wear off! The M of LUMINARIES on the front cover is being rubbed away by my finger as I hold it like this

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It was at such risk of becoming dilapidated that I asked the librarian at work to cover it for me!

My 11 month old daughter also loved this book. Not so much the words (she prefers Ten Little Fingers for that!) but the pages being flicked through. In fact, she liked it so much that she’d make a beeline for it as soon as she saw it. Pages became torn as a result.

But I adored this book. I loved Harvest, The Testament Of Maryand A Tale For The Tome Being and I wondered whether this would hold its own and live up to the hype as Man Booker winner. And it did. In spades.

I am a simple fellow and I am sure much of this book swept past me. I am, after all, looking for very few things in a book: a cracking plot; compelling characters; and beautiful language. In addition to all that, there is an effort to create astronomical and astrological connections between the characters.

20140628-225718-82638357.jpg I am sure that much of this passed me by!

The story centres around one evening in January 14th 1866 when Crosbie Wells, a reclusive hermit, dies near to the New Zealand gold rush town of Hokitika; Lauderback, a politician, arrives in Hokitika and discovers both Wells’ body in his cottage and the unconscious body of Anna Wetherell, a whore, insensate in the streets through an opium overdose; and a famously rich man, Emery Staines, disappears from the same town.

Around this cluster of events, twelve men recognise their own and each other’s involvement. Each man circles this single evening whilst circling the other men as well. Orbiting is clearly an apt word to describe the way each character (and they are all men) become closer to one part of the events of 14th January and more distant from others. That much, I could recognise and – as I said – I’m sure the way each man influences the others around him probably bears some astrological significance. But one I’m ill equipped to identify.

In terms of style, this book piles narrative upon narrative, again orbiting that one night and never quite revealing the truth until the final pages. There is a very much self-aware third person narrator here who, in the opening chapters, is reminiscent of the nineteenth century self conscious narrators. This narrator initially takes the side of Walter Moody, a newcomer to Hokitika who stumbles into a conference held by the twelve men associated with the 14th January events. It is to him that each character tells their tale of involvement. And each of those tales is knitted together for us by the narrator. Circles Within Circles is an incredibly apt name for this part of the book. Courtrooms reinvent one narrative into a quite different story. Flashbacks in the final chapters cause you to re-evaluate and re-think almost all that’s gone before.

The two main characters – Emery Staines, Anna Wetherell are marginalised throughout most of this book! Staines disappeared before the book began; and Anna is sequestered away for large parts of it. They are, however, brought centre stage in the final sections, and it is their voices which resound deepest. I am assuming that this pair of (star-crossed?) lovers are the luminaries, the light givers, of the title, the solar and lunar lights in the sky. I do await to be corrected, however.

It is impossible to pigeonhole this book into a genre: there are elements of Romance between Staines and Anna, elements of Crime around the investigation into Wells’ death, gold thefts, fraud and embezzlement; elements of the Gothic aboard an ill-fated sea journey; elements of the mystical in the relationship between Anna and Staines as bullets that should have struck one inexplicably wound the other, addictions suffered by one and the other’s ability to read and write and sign a signature likewise transferred. It is, however, simply a beautiful book! The vivid quality of Hokitika brought to life with these men orbiting the town and passing by each other; the structural complexity and aesthetic beauty of the book; and the enchanting beauty of a language which feels simultaneously natural and authentically reproducing the prose of another time and place.

After six weeks and 850 pages, I have finished the book with a strong sense of loss and a surprisingly strong urge to re-read it so that the opening chapters can be read in light if what I now know.

That urge to re-read is jolly unusual and a clear mark of just how compelling this book is.

A deserving Man Booker winner to stand alongside Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books.

Intertextuality is a strange idea.

It’s reasonable and intuitive that texts refer both backwards and forwards within themselves: how many stories and tales begin and end at the same place and setting? Detective fiction is built on the importance of small early details turning into clues to be resolved later. Anton Chekov went so far as to call it a rule:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

As a reader, we’d say that the presence of the gun prefigures its later use. These references are what semioticians might call horizontal.

But the books we read are littered with what the same semioticians might describe as vertical references: references to other preceding texts. Every reference to any pastoral idyll echoes a range of poetry dating back to the Garden of Eden. Learned scholars might say something like

Intertextuality refers to far more than the ‘influences’ of writers on each other. For structuralists, language has powers which not only exceed individual control but also determine subjectivity.

This intertextuality stuff, to those of us who are just readers is, to my mind, anything that reminds us of any other text or style of writing. At its most superficial, it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle or an in-joke; at its most abstruse, it can inhibit understanding. T. S. Eliot can fall within both these at the same time!

The most obvious example of intertextuality would be a quotation deliberately inserted by the writer. Susan Hill does this at the end of her opening chapter: Kipps recalls but cannot identify the lines

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

The quotation is from Hamlet and brings to mind the tortuous family relations within Denmark and the rottenness that ensues. It therefore deepens and prefigures the equally tortuous relations within the Drablow family, especially those between mother and child.

The fact of the quotation, however, itself recalls the quotation from Coleridge’s Rime Of The Ancient Marinerthat Dr Frankenstein is put in mind of after his creature rises:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

As Kipps’ quote introduces key themes, so does Frankenstein’s. And the use of quotations by both characters highlights parallels between them: they are both rational beings catapulted into a world that is not susceptible to legal or scientific scrutiny.

This is not the only parallel with Frankenstein: the opening chapter consists of a ghost story competition, reminiscent of the creation story of Mary Shelley’s invention of Frankenstein; the tales of

“uninhibited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards”

recounts almost every Gothic trope and cliche including the charnel houses in which Viktor Frankenstein found his “materials”. Even the very framing narrative of older Kipps recalls both the framing narratives of Captain Walton in Frankenstein and of Lockwood in Wuthering Heights.

The entirety of the chapter A Journey North appears to me to be an homage to Dracula: Kipps and Harker are both solicitors clerks heading out of London and into increasingly uncivilised and dangerous terrains, albeit one heading north and the other east; both travel by train (and the train and it’s timetables become so important to Dracula); the carriages, which were originally “as cosy and enclosed as some lamplight study” that becomes nothing more than a “cold tomb of a railway carriage”, recalling the coffins in which Dracula travels.

The In The Nursery chapter introduces the reader to the rhythmic “Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump” which is later revealed to be the rocking chair. But the rhythm clearly echoes that of the Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Even the title of the chapter Whistle And I’ll Come To You apes the title if M R James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. The graveyard and monastery around Eel Marsh House cause a wry dismissal of Romantic poetry whilst the house itself reminds Kipps and the reader of “the house of poor Miss Havisham” from Dickens’ Great Expectations.

Brontë, Shelley, Stoker, Dickens, Shakespeare, James, Poe. As well as John Clare and Walter Scott and Victorian novels and Romantic poetry in general. Epistolary narratives embedded in a first person narrative embedded within a framing narrative.

The book – the text – is as haunted by these writers as Kipps is himself! And is that not the point – or at least a point? That there is no such thing as a present without a history behind it? No such thing as a now devoid of then? Nothing original in the world, only old patterns re-worked? This is what those aforementioned semioticians might cite to challenge the entire concept of authorship: is this in any sense Hill’s story more than Shelley’s or Dickens’?

Kipps himself falls into the authorial fallacy: his belief that discovering Jennet Drablow’s story will somehow appease her ghost, “solve” her story as if it were some rational puzzle to demystify and control is shown in the horrific final chapter to be tragically wrong. And it’s a mistake he repeats as he attempts to tame her again in re-telling the tale to us! The stage version of the book delves further into this fallacy: the attempt to rationalise Jennet Drablow out of existence actually summons her into the theatre itself, unleashing her on the director and the audience.

Miniature review due to absence of Internet and wifi. In fact, only now possible because phone can – sometimes – get some reception…

Somewhat uncomfortably, I finished reading this book this morning. At about 7:30. As my 12 week old daughter lay asleep in my arms. It made the final chapter particularly unnerving!

This is so much better than the Daniel Radcliffe film! A much more evocative style, a much more effectively chilling tale and a far more engaging protagonist! Sorry, Radcliffe, but no!

As a teacher, Hill is ideal as a conscious and deliberate writer who has very carefully constructed, crafted and perhaps at times contrived and overwrought her writing to recreate the style of the nineteenth century Gothic genre and Arthur Kipps’ voice. The opening paragraph running like this

It was nine-thirty on Christmas Eve. As I crossed the long entrance hall of Monk’s Piece on my way from the dining room, where we had just enjoyed the first of the happy festive meals, towards the drawing room and the fire around which my family were now assembled, I paused and then, as I often do in the course of an evening, went to the front door, opened it and stepped outside.

contains almost every grammatical structure a GCSE student needs: simple and complex and compound constructions; dependent clauses embedded with subordinate clauses; prepositional phrases; subordinating and co-ordinating conjunctions. It is a grammar geek smorgasbord! And a useful ‘hunt-the-main-verb’ teaching tool!

The main plot is followed by the film broadly (although Arthur Kipps’ family circumstances are butchered by the film): as a politely and hopeful member of a firm of solicitors, Arthur is sent to attend the funeral and organise the papers of Mrs Drablow of Eel Marsh House in a distant northern town. A woman in black appears at the funeral and Hill masterfully ratchets up the tension in a series of escalatingly horrific incidents.

Hill is a masterful writer. Her settings are wonderful and descriptions fantastic but it is the control she demonstrates which make her so powerful. At no point does she sacrifice atmosphere for gore; nor tension for explication.

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