Posts Tagged ‘Dracula’



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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Oh dear.

What a let down.

I was really looking forward to this one. And now I feel just… let down.

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I’ve read some great books recently: emotional, lyrical, beautiful. I wasn’t expecting any of that from The Strain. I was looking forward to an enjoyable, rollicking horror vampire fantasy in the style of del Toro’s Mimic, Hellboy or Splice. If I was lucky, it could have been as powerful as the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth.

It wasn’t either.

It was… lazy. Somehow.

Pedestrian.

The basic plot revolves around the arrival of a mysteriously darkened plane into New York JFK Airport. Once opened, the plane is found to be full of dead passengers and crew. Not a bad premise and I imagine deliberately reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s arrival into Whitby on the crewless Demeter.

We are led through the investigations into this dead plane by Ephraim Goodweather, a CDC epidemiologist. He is our main protagonist and del Toro and Hogan succeed in investing him with almost no personality. There’s a somewhat limp attempt to create a personal back story: he is separated from his wife and fighting to retain partial custody of his son. The writing here was almost embarrassingly pedestrian:

“For a lot of other guys Eph knew, men in a situation similar to his own, their divorce seemed to have been as much from their children as from their wives. Sure, they would talk the talk, how they missed their kids, and how their ex-wives kept subverting their relationship, blah, blah, but the effort never seemed to be there. A weekend with their kids became a weekend out of their new life of freedom. For Eph, these weekends with Zack were his life.”

It seems bizarre that a filmmaker with such a vivid visual imagination felt the need to tell rather than show. The same awkward gauche approach is applied to Eph’s relationship with his almost silent colleague, lover and fellow vampire-hunter, Nora Martinez.

Poor Nora. She was sidelined so far she was barely on the same page.

She was even made to stay home to babysit Zack whilst the men went out to hunt the vampires. She was no Mina Harker!

Just flicking back through the book, nearly every page has ridiculous language. It’s not even tongue in cheek, so-bad-it’s-good… It’s just badly written. I mean, take this as an example:

“Eph too had been turned. Not from human to vampire, but from healer to slayer.”

Oh. Oh dear.

Now, let’s turn instead to the vampires. I suppose they didn’t sparkle in the sunlight. They had a retractable proboscis-like stinger which darted from the mouth instead of fangs. Why? I imagine the intention was to ramp-up the visceral icky-factor. But, again, the ready appellation of stinger was applied and all the descriptive power dissipated. It could have – should have – been a depiction from a nightmare, dripping, oozing, moist and phallic… But it became just a stinger.

The physiology of the vampire was explained in tedious detail: blood worms transmitted the virus which converted the human physiology into a vampiric one. Cancerous growths on the organs take over and subvert them. After a day and a night, those bitten become stumbling new-born vampires. They have more in common with zombies than vampires: uncoordinated, shuffling and rather easy to kill.

And, seriously, worms?

It felt almost as if del Toro and Hogan didn’t agree on how to portray the vampires. Are they supernatural deriving from the blood of an Archangel? Are they infected with parasitic worms? Are they infected with a virus? It just feels messy. There is patently a larger story than is contained in this novel and it may be that these confusions are resolved later. But I’m not sure that I’m prepared to give my time to those books to find out.

A number of reviews on Goodreads compare this favourably with The Passage by Justin Cronin. That, I don’t see. The Passage was a wonderful, vivid and mythic reinvention of the vampire. The Strain Is everything I worried The Passage might be: dull, tedious in its violence, superficial in its characterisation and pedestrian in its language.

There is a TV show of the book.

I’m not inclined to watch.

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.

Its odd how my book reading lurks in certain genres for a while: after a crime spree, I notice a range of horror books collecting on the pages of this blog – with more on my to-be-read list.

I wonder what it is with Scandi-Lit.

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; Jo Nesbø; Mons Kallentoft … There seems to be a certain sensibility that they share; a sensitivity for the darkest recesses of the human psyche; an unflinching a sense of social responsibility; a sympathy for the effects of the environment surrounding their characters; a keen eye for the intricate details of domestic life; and a spareness and economy of language.

And Lindqvist’s vampire novel, Let The Right One In fits into exactly this milieu.

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This is the story of Oskar, 12 year old boy, whose divorced parents struggle to keep him on the straight and narrow in the suburb of Blackeberg.

It is a typical – slightly pretentious – English teacher thing to say that the setting is a character in its own right but it is so infrequently actually true. James Joyce’s Dublin od Ulysses and The Dubliners manages it. Lindqvist’s Blackeberg also breathes and seethes throughout the novel, as dark, poisonous and insidious as the vampire itself.

The novel opens with The Location:

Blackeberg.

It was not a place that developed organically of course. Here, everything was carefully planned from the outset. And people moved into what had been built for them. Earth-coloured concrete buildings scattered about in green fields.

Only one thing was missing. A past. At school, children didn’t get to do any special projects about Blackeberg’s history because there wasn’t one. That is to say, there was something about an old mill. A tobacco king. Some strange old buildings down by the water. But that was a long time ago and without any connection to the present.

Where the three-storied apartment buildings now stood there had been only forest before.

You were beyond the grasp of the mysteries of the past; there wasn’t even a church. Nine thousand inhabitants and no church.

That tells you something about the modernity of the place, it’s rationality. It tell you something of how free they were from the ghosts of history and if terror.

It explains in part how unprepared they were.

No one saw them move in.

Blackeberg – soulless and bereft of history – is an echo of the vampire itself – equally soulless and utilitarian in its hunger. It is the home of glue-sniffing teenagers, broken families, a community of drunkards, vicious bullies and the mentally disturbed.

And it is into this environment that the waif like and mysterious Eli and the hopeless hapless lumbering paedophile Hakan Bengtsson move.

And children start dying.

The plot in the novel moves with an horrific sense of inevitability. The situation is achingly familiar to anyone who has even the vaguest notion of vampirism. We know the hunger. We know the inevitable conflict that that hunger creates.

But the heart of this novel is Eli and the relationship between Eli and Oskar. Eli has endured two centuries of being twelve years old. Vampire. Manipulator. Killer. Innocent.

She is not the monster of Stoker’s invention – indeed Hakan is possibly the closest to that role – nor is she the insipid and limp fairy of Meyer’s Twilight series. Somehow the balance between her feeding – as with much Scandinavian Literature, explored without blushing from the visceral – and her childish innocence is maintained throughout. She is a remarkable achievement and a haunting creation. She is not dissimilar at all to Amy Harper Bellafonte in Justin Cronin’s The Passage (click here for my review) and The Twelve

And some of the dialogue between her and Oskar is heart-achingly realistic and beautiful.

As indeed is some of the dialogue and interactions between the drunkards, especially Virginia and Lacke. Isolated and alone, seeking comfort in alcohol and one-night stands, their helpless inability to communicate and their self-protective barbs needling each other to maintain the protective bubbles whilst simultaneously clinging to each other was painful.

The book is not without flaws – the almost inevitable attempt to explain the vampirism in medical terms – that the infection causes a tumour of brain cells to develop on the heart (and recalled unpleasant memories of ovarian dermoid cysts being opened up on some Channel Four documentary to reveal teeth, eyes and hair). There is also at one point a rather clumsy attempt to verbalise some of the implicit connections between the environment and the disease at the heart of the novel.

It is, however, quite simply one of the best, most haunting books – certainly one of the very best vampire books – that I have read.

After reading a couple of extremely well-written, moving but rather serious books, picking up The Bloody Red Baron was intended to be a welcome piece of light relief: a bit of fun vampiric horror.

Kim Newman takes up the reigns of his alternate history some thirty years after the events in the previous Anno Dracula. Having fled from England in the conclusion of that book – as a result of Charles Beauregard’s effective device of giving the enslaved Queen Victoria the knife with which to kill herself and alienate Dracula from his claim on her throne – Dracula has ingratiated himself as Graf Dracula in Germany and taken over the persecution of World War One.

One of the pleasures of the book was putting together the pieces between the previous book and the current one with Beauregard as the rock around which both novels revolve. In this novel, as he staunchly refuses offers to be turned he appears to be moulding one Edwin Winthrope as a successor.

One regrettable loss was that Genevieve Dieudonne did not make any re-appearance here having been parcelled off to California; her role taken up by Kate Reed who had been somewhat underused in Anno Dracula. Although not as underused as in the original Dracula: Stoker managed to write her out compeltely! Reed – whilst still a vampire – is a new-born one and therefore fails to bring the mystique, majesty and mystery of Dieudonne who can state to Dracula the Prince Consort himself that “Impaler, I have no equal”.

Another pleasure is recognising the references and intertextuality that abound in Newman’s fiction: vampires from book and film stalk his pages from Count Orlok to Lord Ruthven to Caleb Croft (and fortunately no Cullens); but being further from the 1890s, for me, the references were less well-loved, less tender, less Gothic and more historical: Biggles, Mata Hari, Ten Brincken and Doctor Moreau.

One character who I simply did not like and did not understand his role in the novel was Poe: ostensibly drafted in to compile the Red Baron’s biography he just seemed to float about as an observer neither affecting nor influencing anything. The character of the Baron was fascinating: cold, detatched, bound in layers of emotional armour which I was hoping Poe would be able to peel away… but it seemed that, just as something human was being unearthed in him, the novel ended.

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This novel pits the plucky Allied airmen and airvampires of Condor Squadron against the eponymous Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen and his demonic Jagdgeschwader Eins. And demonic is probably the right adjective here: Newman’s vampires are full-blooded nightmarish creatures, not the sparkly effete fairies of our post-Twilight world!

Whilst most vampires in the novel are broadly human in shape and size, Newman delights in the shapeshifting ability that the Dracula bloodline has and grows his JG1 into enormous bat-winged creatures the size of aircraft with guns strapped onto their flesh. As Newman put it:

a prehistoric monster with twentieth-century guns.

And these are not the most mostrous vampires: Isolde is a vampire mentioned briefly who as a performer in Paris presents a remarkably unattractive striptease, slicing through a leotard with a knife and then continuing to slice through her own flesh and to flail herself for her audience night after night. Newman delights in the description of her

exposed muscles [which] bunched and smoothed…bones visible in wet meat… arteries [which] stood out, transparent tubes filled with rushing blood

She becomes a recurrent image in the novel, memories of her returning to haunt Winthrope throughout and can be seen as a metaphor perhaps for the war itself. And the book is very strongly anti-war in its message: whilst there are individual acts of bravery and even heroism on both sides, the war across Europe created monsters of all involved. At its most literal level. In fact, as rather civilised and sympathetic vampires abound in the novel, the greatest difficulty Newman faced in the book may have been how to make the vampire more monstrous to his readers.

But it is not just the vampires who are the monsters here. Another very briefly seen vampire is an American one who – nameless – is seen disintegrating into mist in order to infiltrate a tank and, less than a page later is hit by a flame thrower and

centuries of unchronicled life were extinguished in an uncaring instant, blasted to sparkling shreds by brute modernity.

What this novel lacked was the overview that Anno Dracula had: Dracula there was present, ominous and contagious; in this sequel, he was distant and almost absent, his activities reported but not seen. There was no final standoff. No climax.

All in all, a good well-written and surprisingly thoughtful romp through Newman’s alternative World War 1. Certainly worth a read – as is any book in which Private Charles Godfrey from Dad’s Army appears!

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I have a confession.

I love Dracula. Both the character and Stoker’s novel.

And I love vampires.

Not the sparkly, fairy, effete version populating Meyer’s asinine attempts at fiction (“Dear Dracula, do you remember that one night seventeen years ago? Well, we need to talk. Sincerely, Tinkerbell”) but full blown raging bloodlust sensual sexual visceral vampires. Buffy’s Angel and werewolves may be a tortured soul trapped in a bestial form struggling to contain their animal appetites (which has its own appeal) but a real true dyed-in-the-wool vampire revels in and relishes their evil.

The concept for this book, then, had an automatic appeal: Dracula had arrived in England; he seduced and turned Lucy Westenra who is dispatched by the forces of light comprising Arthur Holmwood, John Seward and Quincey Morris. As the forces of light attempt to track down Dracula, he turns his attention to Mina Harker. At this point, Newman’s narrative departs from Stoker’s: Dracula kills Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris; he seduces Queen Victoria and becomes Prince Consort; a world of vampires flocks to England to make a stab at (or to take a bite at) an openly vampiric life.

History and fiction mingle in Newman’s tale: Stoker and Van Helsing are both characters; Inspectors Lestrade and Abberline work side by side; Sherlock Holmes has been incarcerated in a ‘warm’ concentration camp; doctors Moreau and Jekyll investigate vampire physiology. Vampires from fiction abound from Lord Rothven (appropriately for the first literary vampire in Polidori’s The Vampyre now Prime Minister to less familiar names such as Kostaki, von Klatka and Count Vardalek.

As a self confessed geek, there is an undeniable delight in recognising the various recreations and re-imaginings of famous and less famous characters.

Had that been the only pleasure, though, this would have been a thin, poor novel. Fortunately, it is not the only pleasure: Newman’s story remains rooted in the final years of the nineteenth century and focusses on the Jack the Ripper murders. The Ripper’s victims, Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes and Kelly remain prostitutes in Whitechapel but are now vampire prostitutes and their murders attract the attention of Scotland Yard; Queen Victoria herself; the shadowy Diogenes Club headed by Mycroft Holmes (which exists somewhere between diplomacy and warfare on behalf of the Queen); the criminal spider’s web headed by Fu Manchu, the Lord of Strange Deaths, and Professor Moriarty; and the philanthropic hospital and charity of Toynbee Hall.

Our main characters are Geneviève Dieudonné and Charles Beauregard. Geneviève is a four hundred year old Vampire elder who works as assistant director of the Hall under Dracula‘s Jack Seward; Charles is an agent of the Diogenes Club and, through them, the Queen. Geneviève in particular is a quite compelling character: turned at the age of sixteen and remaining in a sixteen year old body, she remains a strong moral anchor in the world. Enough of her history and powers are hinted at that she comes across as indomitable throughout the novel even though we never truly see her unleash that power. Charles Beauregard by contrast is a lesser character: mired in duty and obligation to his Queen, his fiancée and his deceased wife he is so much less confident and compelling than Geneviève.

The novel conjures up all the expected cliches of Victorian London with Hanson cabs, fogs and gas lamps yet manages to remain fresh and convincing. The addition of the vampires into the social sink of Whitechapel, where a threepenny could buy you both a roll in the hay and a blood letting, deepens the griminess of the area. One woman in a particularly unpleasant image trails the streets of Whitechapel with two children in tow (which may or may not be her own) to pimp their blood to passing vampires.

The vampires themselves are not quite the full blooded bloodsuckers I had hoped for. The magic and superstition of Dracula is stripped away, as is their antipathy to crosses and holy water and garlic. These vampires are more natural than Stoker’s: they’re still preternaturally strong, heal almost instantly from most injuries, have a various abilities depending on their bloodlines including almost psychic sensitivity to others’ thoughts or shapeshifting; sunlight can burn newly turned vampires and silver can prevent wounds from closing. It is from this silver that Jack the Ripper is dubbed Silverknife before the Ripper moniker is attached to him.

There is a wider larger plot behind the efforts to track down the Ripper but in fear of spoilers I shall not dwell on that. It did manage to take me by surprise in the final hour of the audiobook!