Posts Tagged ‘Gothic’

Ah, Doctor Jekyll I presume!

This is one of my favourite concepts for a book and, like Dracula and Frankenstein, such a hugely evocative character and concept. It is intuitively resonant that lurking within all of us, behind the mask and veneer of social mores and decency, is a rampaging, amoral, bestial, primitive, reptilian beast. It is The Incredible Hulk, the werewolf; in Freudian terms, the conflict between the Id and the Superego; in Jungian terms – which is my favoured approach here – it is the Persona and the true identity.

What’s the critical difference between Freudian and Jungian approaches to Jekyll and Hyde? I’m no psychologist and my understanding is self-confessedly limited. For me, Freud would view Hyde as regressive, a retreat into the Id, a return to a childlike, animalistic slavery to impulse without the higher functions of the Superego. Jekyll would therefore be Freud’s tortured hero. For Jung, in my opinion, the roles would be reversed. Jekyll would be seen as the Persona, the shallow and brittle mask that has been selected to be presented to the world; it is an arbitrary selection, possibly imposed by external forces such as a father’s ambition. Hyde, therefore, would be viewed as the true and natural state of the man released through a – here pharmacologically induced – enantiodromia. Jung, therefore, may view Hyde as the tragic hero.

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Moving to the book. Let’s be honest, the writing style is not one that sits naturally with me. The somewhat clinical nature of the narration prevents Stevenson from developing his descriptions – with one or two notable exceptions – and the whole novella comes in at only 50 or so pages and no more than a couple of hours reading time.

Perhaps it says more about me than anything else but I would love to have seen more of the horrors of Hyde’s excursions. Films dwell on it – usually going to excess in the other direction – but Stevenson is almost silent. When we do see Hyde, his interactions still strike me as rather urbane. The epitome of evil – a word which I balk against by nature – seems incongruous when negotiating an out of court settlement for compensation!

Somewhere in my mind I recall hearing that Stevenson excised descriptions of Hyde’s excesses for fear of upsetting his wife – was he even married? – but I so wish he’d left them in!

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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!

Having read Scar Night some years ago and noticing it and it’s sequels online, I downloaded them.

I had memories of the city of Deepgate, suspended over an Abyss like the gaping maw of some vast creature (urban planning council had a lot to answer for!). I recalled a scarred feral angel whose monthly bloodletting was simultaneously vampiric and werewolf-like.

It was a bit of a shock then that Deepgate had collapsed into the abyss entirely and the scarred angel Carnival appears to have been dispatched within two pages of her reappearance. The main protagonists remain Rachel and Dill but they have now become separated at a metaphysical level: Dill, having sort of died and been reborn in Scar Night is dispatched to Hell once more in Iron Angel as another angel usurps his body; and his body and Rachel disappears into obscurity for the central section of the book.

In my view, this novel suffers from typical mid trilogy issues. The original novel did hint at a wider mythology but was firmly rooted; this novel expands on the mythology often using dialogue to expand develop and explain it to us readers. And in the process, character and empathy is lost. It is like Campbell zoomed out from a manageable citywide focus to a continental one in which we just lose sight of characters – even the ones he doesn’t kill off. Those that remain do so in an utterly passive state: they are placed into a scenario and wait there for another character to tell them what to do. It is a rather frustrating read!

On the plus side, there is a potent imagination at work here. The descriptions of a Hell (or the Maze in the book’s mythology) created out of our own souls was intriguing and the fluidity of form in Hell both in the malleability of the world around the characters and on the characters own forms (bodies is patently the wrong word but the dead tend to retain the form of their erstwhile bodies) was fascinating.

In conclusion, I think Campbell’s own games designing Grand Theft Auto background is visible here. He is a world builder, his backgrounds and settings have potency; but I do not think he is character driven and, consequently, nor is his novel and for me that is a huge let down.

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