Archive for the ‘books’ Category

“Reading Robert Aickman is like watching a magician work, and very often I’m not even sure what the trick was.  All I know is that he did it beautifully.”-  Neil Gaiman

Recently, I came across a mention of Robert Aickman again.  He was  a horror writer I’d hear about every once in awhile, certainly not as famous as many of his contemporaries.  A writer’s writer, it would seem.  The twentieth century’s “most profound writer of what we call horror stories”- according to Peter Straub.

Yet, he certainly has his critics as well, his stories being described as too obscure.

Curious to finally read him and form my own opinion, I picked up a copy of Dark Entries.

The first story within, “The School Friend” begins, “It would be false modesty to deny that Sally Tessler and I were the bright girls in school.” And so, an older Mel reflects upon how she met one of her oldest girlfriends.  Only a few pages in, I was hit by this doozy of a line.  “I was able to construe Latin fairly well for a girl, but the italics and long s’s daunted me.” Really? I recalled how once another woman mentioned she’d been reading a work with a female main character which happened to have  been written by a man.  Everything was fine and believable until the writer had the character make reference to her period by calling it, “my menstruation.”  Because no woman talks like that.  I had a similar feeling here because I doubt there is any female who thinks to herself, “wow! I can do this pretty well, you know, even though, I’m like, only a girl.”

Okay, so Mr. Aickman wasn’t going to win any POV awards for this, but I tried to put that aside and concentrate on the rest of the story.

Forty-one year old Mel comes into contact with her old friend after decades apart when Sally returns to their hometown after the death of her father.  A man who “never went out”, and who received a doctorate for an unknown subject.   Sally, herself, was always odd- living to work and revealing very little about her private life.

Now Sally has moved back in her father’s old house.  One that Mel describes as, “entirely commonplace, and in the most unpleasing fashion.”  After her friend suffers an accident, Mel is asked to look after the place.  To her surprise, she discovers every room is kept locked; there is one chain with numerous keys to open each one.

What Mel discovers inside the house is difficult to say even after one has finished the story, and my initial reaction was one of disappointment.  Some ambiguity is fine.  Were Miles and Flora really haunted in The Turn of the Screw, or was their governess mad?  What exactly did Eleanor and Theodora see in The Haunting of Hill House?

But here, it felt like full pages had been ripped out.  As though the author was being lazy, here you do the work.  I’ll just sit back and appear clever.

Yet, the story stayed with me, and I recalled hearing how Aickman’s stories begged to be reread.  In doing so, I did notice more things- said and unsaid- that had escaped my initial notice.

I’m not yet settled on how I feel about this particular little strange story, but it continues to gnaw.

Fritz Leiber: “Robert Aickman has a gift for depicting the eerie areas of inner space, the churning storms and silent overcasts that engulf the minds of lonely and alienated people. He is a weatherman of the subconscious.”

dark entries cover

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“Under the oil lamp that hung outside the Hare and Billet public house opposite the willowed pond at the bottom right of the heath, a spindly figure came hurrying into view.  She was cloaked in black, pulling the swirling material close to her body and moved with determined strides, hurried along by the threat of what stirred above.  Illuminated by the orange glow of the pub windows, she stopped suddenly, distracted by a noise at the pond.  Beyond the curtain of dark willow branches that dipped down into the water something was moving.”

…..

Racing up the old Dover road from the coast two large black carriages pulled by four muscular black horses attempted to outrun the storm that had kept pace with them since their arrival in the country.  Finally Blackheath opened up to them, the storm a dramatic black sea above it. The carriages veered and swayed as their wheels hit verge and pothole, turning the corners too fast and at alarming speeds.  They threatened to topple as they approached the Princess of Wales public house that marked entry into the village.”

Set in 1850s Blackheath- an area of south-east London- Alan Williams’s novel begins as forty year-old Maggie Cloak makes her way home through a crazy storm, while her younger sister, Judy, sits at her desk penning the first lines of the gothic horror she is attempting.

It is a few years since the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, NY made headlines with their spirit tappings, and across the sea, the Spiritualist Movement has caught fire.

As their chocolate store is barely selling enough sugar mice or marzipan ladybirds to keep them fed, Judy declares they must finally close shop and, “We must open the Blackheath Seance Parlour!”

And so begins one of the most fun, engaging romps I’ve read in years.  Filled with beautifully realized characters, a poignant portrait of a troubled sister relationship, a surprising friendship between Maggie and a minister, a serial killer stalking women across the desolate landscape, psychics, angry royalty, and a very naughty gothic number by Judy… this one had me utterly engrossed.

It may be important to note, that others have pointed out some anachronisms.  Indeed, it is unlikely that Judy’s bawdy, explicit novel with 18th century sensibilities would be so easily published in the repressed, hushed nineteenth.  However, the inaccuracies blended so easily into the story, that they never took me out of it.

Blackheath Seance Parlour

written by Alan Williams

2013

Favorite book read in ages.

In honor of the gifted science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer, Ms. Lee, who passed away on May 24, 2015, here are some lines from her collection of retold fairytales, Red As Blood.

from “Wolfland”:

“She must have slept, dazed by the continuous rocking of the carriage, but all at once she was wide awake, clutching in alarm at the upholstery.  What had awoken her was a unique and awful choir.  The cries of wolves.”

“Having run the gamut of her own premonition, Lisel sank back on the seat and yearned for a pistol or at least a knife.  A malicious streak in her lent her the extraordinary bravery of desiring to inflict as many hurts on her killers as she was able  before they finished her.  She also took time to curse Anna the Matriach.  How wretched the old woman would grieve and complain when the story reached her.  The clean-picked bones of her granddaughter had been found a mere mile or so from her chateau in the rags of a blood-red cloak; by the body a golden clasp,rejected as inedible.”

from “When the Clock Strikes” :

“The duke’s funeral cortege passed slowly across the snow, the broad open chariots draped with black and silver, the black-pumed horses, the chanting priests with their glittering robes, their jeweled crucifixes and golden censers.  Crowds lined the roadways to watch the spectacle.  Among the beggar women stood a girl.  No one noticed her.  She gazed at the bier pitilessly.  As the young prince rode by in his sables, the seal ring on his hand, the eyes of the girl burned through her ashy hair, like a red fox through grasses.”

from “The Golden Rope”:

“All around the house,the dead trees, a palisade out-stared the moon.  They were a constant reminder of her youth which she had given up her vitality which had been drained.  And yet, tonight it seemed to her there was a strange stirring in the trees and in her blood.”

red as blood

Mary Shelley

 

Originally published in my former blog: Gypsyscarlett Weblog on February 9, 2009

In the summer of 1816, a cold spell swept across Europe and North America.   The unusual chill caused snowfall in July and unparalleled thunderstorms.   Pamphlets were passed around predicting the end of the world.

During June of that year,  five of the most famous persons in the world gathered together in a summerhouse in Villa Diodati, on the southern shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland.  “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know”- Lord Byron, Dr. John Polidori, ethereal Percy Shelley, Claire Clairmont (eighteen years-old and pregnant with Byron’s child), and her stepsister, Mary Godwin (mistress to the married Shelley).

Mary Godwin (later Shelley) was born on August 30, 1797 to the radical political philosopher William Godwin, and  founding feminist Mary Wollstonecraft (authoress of “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”).   Mr. Godwin never got over the death of  his wife who died due to complications during childbirth.  He taught young Mary to spell her name by tracing the letters on her mother’s tombstone.

Although both Godwin and Wollstonecraft had been disciples of the free love movement, he was outraged when his own daughter began a love affair with the married poet and refused to speak with her. Mary had spent her childhood haunted by the idea that she’d murdered her mother and  was determined to prove her consequent life worthy.   It had not been easy growing up the child of famed revolutionaries.   Now,  practically disowned by the father she adored, and in the company of  the poetic geniuses, Byron and Percy, Mary felt an even greater need to prove herself.

On June 16, 1816, as candles flickered and lightning illuminated the room, Byron read from Fantasmagoriana,  a volume of German shudder stories translated into French.  Upon finishing, he challenged everyone in the room to write a ghost story.  This was just the incitement Mary needed. She later explained, “I busied myself to think of a story,- a story to rival those which had excited us to this task.  One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror.”

However, she was unable to think of an idea until June 22nd.   On that evening, the conversation turned to, “the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated.”  They discussed the experiments of Erasmus Darwin who had, “preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.”

Past midnight, she found herself unable to sleep- imagining a corpse reanimated.  “My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie.”   Her eyes closed, she saw, “a 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.”

After opening her eyes, she was still not able to dismiss the “hideous phantom”.  She later recalled thinking, “O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten my reader as I myself had been frightened that night.”  A few moments later she realized,  “I have found it!”

The next morning, she announced having thought of a story.  And along with the dream, she brought with her  a lifetime spent devouring the works of Goethe, Dante, Schiller, Shakespeare, Milton, and Matthew “Monk” Lewis.

In writing, Frankenstein ; or, The Modern  Prometheus, she would further utilize the theory of vitalism which held that a life force separated living things from  non-living things.  Some believed in a connection between vitalism (or elan vital) and electricity.  In 1803,  Giovanni Aldini had claimed to make dead bodies sit up and raise their arms by applying electricity.

Mary began, “It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.” ( This opening spoken by Dr. Victor Frankenstein would later become the opening of chapter 4 in the 1818 edition and chapter 5 in the revised 1831 version).

Dr. Frankenstein discovers the secrets of creating life.  After gathering human parts from charnel houses, he infuses the spark of life into the being.  However, Frankenstein is immediately horrified at the ugliness of his own creation.    He casts the Monster out into the unfeeling world.  This Monster- sensitive and tender- seeks understanding from Man but is constantly spurned until he chooses suicide. ”I shall die.   I shall no longer feel the agonies which now consume me, or be the prey of feelings unsatisfied, yet unquenched.”

As Mary began penning what at first was only intended to be a short story, she could have no idea that she was creating one of the most enduring characters ever invented.   The  unnamed Monster, rejected by his own father, (as Mary had been rejected by hers) would outlive all of the five men and women gathered together in that villa on the shores of lake Geneva.

*quote by Lady Caroline Lamb- lover to Lord Byron

the monk

reblogged from my older blog, Gypsyscarlett: Writing the Victorian Gothic.  originally posted on May 20, 2012

Into the Gothic World of the Monk

One of my maxims for writing stories that take place in past eras is that people have always been the same.  What goes on inside hearts, and behind closed doors has never changed.   It is only the outer society that differs in clothes and manner.
     A fantastic example of this is the 1796 novel by Matthew G. Lewis.   It is difficult to imagine this being published in the staid Victorian period.  But go back one century to the much more bawdy 18th, and this book was not only published, it was a smashing hit.  The fact that some critics deemed it obscene and dangerous, of course, only helped to sell more copies.
      Matthew Lewis, born on July 9. 1775, to a prominant English family, wrote the novel in a span of ten weeks.  Inspired by the novel, Mysteries of Udolpho, he aimed to write his own Gothic masterpiece.   Evidently putting aside any care or worry what anyone would think of him or his novel, he went full out, no-holds barred. The title character, Ambrosio is the ultimate man of two faces.  To his congregation he is the embodiment of purity and moral excellence.  Inside, he is an ego-ist who feeds on their adoration.
       The novel becomes a Matryoshka doll of stories within stories.  Romance,  sex, magic, murder,  and ghosts  fill the pages. While the confessions he hears indicate that most of the characters are decent enough folk caught up in an unjust world,  Ambrosio, himself, spirals into one of the most loathesome characters in all of literature.  A hypocrite to the extreme who blames everyone  and everyone but himself for anything and everything he does,  his arrogance and utter disregard for others leads him to rape and murder.
     The novel also boasts one of the most fascinating, unapologetic characters in Matilda.  As Ambrosio’s lover and nemesis,  she is his perfect foil, and the reader will be quite curious whose side she is really on.
     Story-wise, the novel is a marvel and it is easy to see why it had such great influence on such later literary figures as Emily Bronte and Poe.  On the negative side, the novel is unfortunately filled with the racism and sexism of its day.  Reading the treatment of the women is not easy.  Their constant punishment will raise the hair of anyone with modern sensibility.   While the men happily go along their merry ways, you can bet any of the female characters who engages in physical intercourse- whether it be consensual sex or  rape, will either die or lose her beauty and retire into a convent.  Only one female character in the book who has had pre-marital sex is “allowed” by the author to marry the man she loves at the end.   But not until after she has suffered one of  the cruelest, most heartbreaking tragedies one can imagine.
     Accepting the book for the era it was written, I was able to greatly enjoy the story while glaring at times and being grateful that authors no longer need to punish their ladies as some sort of horrible, hypocritical “moral”.
     Recommended as a highly engaging, spellbinding, and at times, surprisingly humorous tale with a fantasic, witty end.

John_Henry_Fuseli_-_The_Nightmare

“Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors; and hereafter she may suffer–both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams.” ― Bram Stoker, Dracula

“Thus fortified I might take my rest in peace. But dreams come through stone walls, light up dark rooms, or darken light ones, and their persons make their exists and their entrances as they please, and laugh at locksmiths.” ― Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla

As I continue my study of The Bohemian Gothic Tarot deck, it occured to me that it would make sense to discuss the cards in some chronological order.  However, since I’m not at all a linear thinker, that idea was quickly eschewed in favor of a more  instinctive bent. Hence, I’ll just be writing about whichever card strikes my fancy. And on this new moon, it is:

Nine of  Swords

keyowrds: Nightmares. Visions.  Terrors of the mind.   Delusions. Phobias and hysteria.   Fear of going mad.

bohemian gothic tarot nine of swords

Brings to my mind the works of Poe and Jackson. The artistic horrors of Bava and Argento.

Reflections on the card: While certainly most would consider this a negative card (and in many aspects it is), it also invokes in me a singular excitement. No doubt  because dreams and nightmares often fuel my own stories.

“I delight in what I fear,” Shirley Jackson once said.  Her Eleanor vance could have posed for this card.

We all have fears.  They can control us, or we can turn them into our own works of art.

Alexander Scriabin’s Black Mass (Piano Sonata no. 9)

Angelique’s Descent by Lara Parker

angelique descent

In 1997, when Lara Parker was approached to write a novel based on the show, Dark Shadows, she revealed her interest in writing a backstory of how her character became the twisted Witch- lover, nemesis, eternal foil to the monstrous, yet humanly conflicted, Barnabas.

Hence the title, the novel plays on the myth of the Sumerian Goddess, Inanna, who relinquished her earthly possessions to be initiated into the mysteries of the underworld.

A fun romp through Angelique’s beginnings as a child of the sea in Madinina, to her discovery of Voodoo while imprisoned by her father, to her love-stricken meeting with Barnabas in Martinique to his cruel forsaking of her when fate brings them together once again in that infamous mansion of Collinwood.

While forced by her father to partake in fake Voodoo rituals in order to frighten both his slaves and his free enemies, Angelique discovers she truly holds an affinity to the ancient African religion. Spells she tries out for mere amusement come true. While pretending to be possessed during one of the rites, Erzulie, the loa of love and beauty, overtakes her for real. This incident has a profound affect on the young girl, leading her to admit, “I want the goddess to come to me. If she thinks i am pretending to be her, then maybe she will come into my head, and I will know her.”

Continuing her studies into the religion and magical practices of Voodoo, Erzulie does indeed become her patron loa. The “master of her head”.

However, at the same time, a mysterious “devil” figure has also set his sight on Angelique, and is determined to make her one of his disciples. Unlike Inanna who journeyed out of her own free will seeking knowledge and enlightenment, Angelique is to be drawn- broken- into his lair. To achieve that goal, he must destroy everything she holds dear, so he remains all she has.

The novel is a well-written account- vividly drawn with a lyricism reminiscent of the sea that Angelique loves so much. Her character’s descent from sweet child to a woman maddened by grief is believably told.

The disadvantage is that since one knows exactly where this is going, the story lacks suspense. There is no question that the devil is going to beat Erzulie in their struggle over Angelique’s heart and soul. You know that anyone she befriends (platonically or romantically) is going to meet a tragic end. Therefore, the narrative does drag at times as you wait for the day that she sets that eternal curse upon Barnabas.

A bit uneven, yet fun and rewarding read.
Recommended for fans of the show, andd those who enjoy modern-style Gothics.

Some years ago, I chanced upon DARK SHADOWS ALMANAC. Included within its pages was a wonderful essay by Lara Parker detailing her journey writing her first book, Angelique’s Descent
As a long-time fan of the gothic (and charmingly playful) 1960s daytime soap, I was delighted to hear my favorite actress from the show had written a book detailing the life of her infamous character: the romantic and very scorned witch. The woman who would curse Barnabas Collins to eternity as one of the living dead.

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From the moment I began to read I was swept away in Ms. Parker’s warm recollections for the show, and her determination in honing the craft of writing.

“How in the world does an actress end up writing a novel? Actresses are those vain, frivilous creatures who bask in the limelight and would never think of holing up in a dark office for months sruggling to produce a piece of fiction,” she began.

Afte Jim Pierson (director of the official fan conventions) spent much time convincing Harper Collins to consider releasing brand new novels based on the show, Ms Parker was called in to meet with Caitlin Blasdell, an editor from the publishing firm.

“I appreciated the opportunity but I really didn’t believe I’d be able to do it…I was neither foolish enough nor presumptuous enough to assume that I would have the ability to generate hundreds of pages that in any way would resemble the many fascinating, intriguing novels I had read in my life.”

While Lara confessed she would be interested in writing about Angelique’s childhood- all the heartaches she must have suffered to turn her into the woman fans saw on the show, she was surprised by Blandell’s confidence in the endeavor.

The other explained in a hushed tone, ” ‘Please don’t worry, Lara. Just write it the best you can. We have professional writers at Harpers who will take what you do, fix it up, and make it into a real book.’ ”

“My pride was injured, and all I could do was think how much I resented her offer.”

Invigorated by the challenge in front of her, Lara immediately began to study literature, digging deep into the lush language and intricate plots of Daphne du Maurier, the Bronte Sisters, Dickens, Stoker, Poe, as well as many others. “I read Interview with the Vampire and Gone With the Wind, digging beneath the stories to focus on structure and point of view. I was determined to steep myself in the romantic style.”

Thinking upon the character she had played decades ago, “I began to imagine ever more heartbreaking events which would harden Angelique. Her hopes would soar, only to be shattered agaisnt the rocks….Any student of literature will recognize the obvious symbolism I struggled to put into place… Since Angelique was a child of the sea, water was her emotional center….I played with these elements, only because, despite what I said about actresses in the beginning, I was an English minor in college, and these things returned to me.”

The book was ultimately published as Lara Parker wrote it. No need for any ghost writers for that lady!

next post: Angelique’s Decent: Book Review

source for this post: Dark Shadows Almanac
edited by Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jim Pierson

Hangsaman

Thanks to Penguin Classics, many of Shirley Jackson’s long out of print eary novels are being reprinted. Written in 1951, Jackson’s second novel, Hangsaman ,is a coming of age tale with the psychological hauntings one finds in her later works. Lacking the subtle, but unnerving chills of The Haunting of Hill House, or the macabre humor of We’ve Always Lived in the Castle, the novel rather foretells the greatness to come.

The book revolves around Natalie Waite- a young woman with a vivid imagination, whose father is training her to be a writer. Stressed by her father who seems to want to turn her into a mirror image of himself, and terrified of becoming like her neurotic mother, Natalie seeks her own identity inside of daydreams.

But a traumatizing event occurs which nearly shatters her already fragile persona.

“The danger is here, in here, ” Natalie thinks, “just as they stepped inside and were lost in the darkness.” Assaulted shortly before going away to college, she admonishes herself, “I don’t remember, nothing happened, nothing that I remember happened.”

Determined to move on, Natalie enters the liberal college with enthusiasm, but soon finds herself surrounded by cliques, hazing, and petty cruelities. Snubbed by the other girls, she slips further and further into her own mind until the reader wonders how much is of her own willing, her imagination- or whether she is truly suffering from mental illness.

“Remember, too, that without you I could not exist: there can be no father without a daughter. You have thus a double responsibility, for my existence and your own. If you abandon me, you lose yourself,” her father writes in one of his letters to her.

It is shortly thereafter that she begins to wonder if she is real at all. ”Perhaps- and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her- suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arthur Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?”

The only one who understands Natalie, and shares her visions of the world, is the strange girl named Tony whom she befriends. Ethereal ,and cryptic in speech, it is up to the reader to decide whether Tony is real or not.

“Will you come somewhere with me?” Tony asks her. ”It’s a long way.”

Whether Tony is an imaginary friend or not, hardly matters, for it is Natalie’s trust in her, and/or in herself that gives her the courage to embark on a surreal trip through the city and into the woods where she faces her greatest fear- being alone- and comes out triumphant.

Elegiac, yet also brimming with an undercurrent of optimism by its engaging protagonist, Hangsaman unfortunately falls short of what Ms. Jackson semed to be aiming for. Elements of it working better than the whole. A fantastic read for people already fans of Jackson, but not a good place to start.