'Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!'
These are pretty much the first words spoken to Jonathan'Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely. And leave something of the happiness you bring!'
These are pretty much the first words spoken to Jonathan Harker, one of the heroes of Bram Stoker's Dracula, upon his arrival at Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania, just minutes after a nightmare journey through the landscape of gothic horror: darkness, howling wolves, flames erupting out of the blue, frightened horses. Within a few days of his arrival, Harker will find himself talking of the Count's 'wickedly blazing eyes' and 'new schemes of villainy' and have some hair-raising encounters with the man who is now the world's most famous vampire: 'The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.' Several adventures involving sharp teeth, mirrors, garlic, crucifixes, bloody-mouthed corpses and big stakes will ensue.
The above quotations should make it abundantly clear what kind of book Dracula is. It's sensation fiction, written nearly half a century after the heyday of that genre. It's a cross between an epistolary novel, a detective novel and a save-my-wife story, and it's full of scares, horror and disgust, all described in a lurid tone that befits the subject: the living dead. Or the Un-Dead, as the book's other hero, my countryman Van Helsing, calls them.
Sadly, Van Helsing is one of my main problems with the book. While I love his heroism, his 'Let's-do-it' attitude and his unceasing struggle for Mina's soul, I find him entirely unconvincing as a Dutchman. I wish to God (with a crucifix and everything!) that I could switch off my inner linguist and appreciate the story for its narrative qualities rather than its linguistic aspects, but Stoker has Van Helsing indulge in so many linguistic improbabilities ('Are you of belief now, friend John?') that it quite took me out of the story, again and again and again. I'm aware this is not a problem that will bother many readers, but I for one dearly wish Stoker had listened to some actual Dutchmen before making the hero of his story one. Then perhaps he also would have refrained from making the poor man mutter German whenever he is supposed to speak his mother tongue. ('Mein Gott' is German, Mr Stoker. I mean, really.)
Linguistic inaccuracies aside (there are many in the book), Dracula has a few more problems. For one thing, the bad guy doesn't make enough appearances. Whenever Stoker focuses on Dracula, the story comes alive -- menace drips off the pages, and the reader finds himself alternately shivering with excitement and recoiling in horror. However, when Dracula is not around (which is most of the second half of the book), the story loses power, to the point where the second half of the book is actually quite dull. In addition, the story seems a little random and unfocused. Remember the 1992 film, in which Dracula obsesses about Mina Harker (Jonathan's wife) because she is his long-lost wife reincarnated? That conceit had grandeur, romance, passion, tragedy. And what was more, it made sense. It explained why Dracula comes all the way from Transylvania to England to find Mina, and why he wants to make her his bride despite the fact that she is being protected by people who clearly want him dead. In the book, however, Mina is merely Jonathan's wife (no reincarnation involved), a random lady Dracula has sunk his teeth into, and while this entitles her to some sympathy, it lacks the grand romantic quality the film had. I guess it's unfair to blame an author for not thinking of an improvement film-makers later made to his story, but I think Stoker rather missed an opportunity there.
And then there's the fact that Stoker seems to be an early proponent of the Robert Jordan School of Writing, meaning he takes an awful lot of time setting the scene, only to end the book on a whimper. The ending to Dracula is so anticlimactic it's rather baffling. Did Stoker run out of paper and ink? Did he want to finish the story before Dracula's brides came and got him? I guess we'll never know.
Still, despite its many flaws Dracula is an exciting read (well, the first half is, anyway), and Stoker undeniably left a legacy that will last for centuries to come. In that respect, Dracula deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it. I still think it could have been better, though. Much better....more
Penguin calls Northanger Abbey 'the most youthful and optimistic' of Jane Austen’s romances. I'm going to be slightly less generous myself and call itPenguin calls Northanger Abbey 'the most youthful and optimistic' of Jane Austen’s romances. I'm going to be slightly less generous myself and call it the most immature of her major works. While the story about a seventeen-year-old girl who is led astray by false friends and her own overactive imagination is delightful, the way in which it is told is in some regards quite immature. So is the heroine herself, who sadly doesn't really work for me. As far as I'm concerned, sweet and naïve Catherine Morland would have made a superb secondary character in any of Austen's other novels, but as a protagonist in her own right, she strikes me as being rather inconsequential. Nor is her romance with Henry Tilney (who is definitely among Austen's more endearing young men) very memorable. It is neither intense and passionate (like Marianne Dashwood and Mr Willoughby's) nor ever-lasting (like Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth's) nor a sparring match between two sophisticated equals (like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy's). Rather it's an uneventful minuet between an affable young man and a silly young woman in which the young man's affection, in Austen's own words, originates 'in nothing better than gratitude ... in other words ... a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.' It's an original premise, as Austen herself points out ('the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own'), but when it comes to central romances, I think I prefer grand and passionate to original and mundane.
The lack of a mature heroine and a great central romance isn't my only problem with Northanger Abbey. While the light-hearted tone of the book and the witty authorial voice definitely have their charms, I have to admit to finding the humour a bit too farcical at times, and the parody (inspired not just by the Gothic novels identified in the book but also by Smollett and Fielding) a little over the top. Call me dull, but I prefer the subtle, dignified satire of the more mature Austen to the rather burlesque and eighteenth-century humour on display here. I guess I've always been more of a nineteenth-century person than an eighteenth-century one. I'm glad Jane Austen eventually became one, too. :-)
Needless to say, Northanger Abbey also has plenty of merits. As a commentary on society, it's as good as anything Austen wrote later, if (again) a little less subtle. As a portrait of friendship, too, it is excellent; the juxtaposition of Catherine's friendship with the infuriatingly selfish Isabella and John Thorpe on the one hand and the perfectly agreeable Henry and Eleanor Tilney on the other is very successful. And yes, overimaginative teenage girls, gold-diggers and tyrannical paters familias will always make good subjects for a satirist, so kudos to Austen for recognising their potential and making the most of it. She was definitely onto a good story here; I just wish she had had the time to revise it before she died, as she was planning to. No doubt the combination of her youthful imagination and later grasp of story-telling techniques would have resulted in a great classic. As it is, it's just a nice book -- in Catherine's sense of the word, not Henry's....more
Wow. That was my response after reading just a few pages of The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter's amazing collection of re-imagined fairy tales. CarterWow. That was my response after reading just a few pages of The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter's amazing collection of re-imagined fairy tales. Carter has a way with words that pulls you right into her stories, seducing you, intoxicating you. And the stories themselves are pretty impressive, too. Carter has a superb imagination and ambition to match, leading her not just to modernising famous fairy tales, but to feminising them, eroticising them and giving them a dark and primordial slant. The result is a pretty heady mix of ingénues, beasts, vampires, werewolves and feral children who discover things they never did in the story books you have at home, but which make perfect sense in the strange, highly atmospheric universe Carter creates here. You may never read your fairy-tale books in the same way again after reading this collection, but then again, perhaps you weren't meant to read them that way, anyway. Who is to say what is the definitive version of a fairy tale?
To be sure, the quality of the stories in The Bloody Chamber is uneven. There are a few stories in there which are so obscure they had me going 'huh?', but even in their obscurity they were seriously beautiful and evocative. I genuinely enjoyed being immersed in the delirious bath of feelings and impressions Carter poured me, and I honestly look forward to taking the plunge again at some point to see if I can make more sense of these stories then. That's how good a writer Carter is -- even at her most obscure she seduces you and has you coming back for more.
Meanwhile, the good stories in The Bloody Chamber are very good indeed. My favourite would have to be 'Puss-in-Boots'. The most straightforward story in the collection, it's a delightfully brazen retelling of the fairy tale of the same name, in which Puss proudly relates his efforts to get his master to bed the lady of his dreams. Other superb stories in the collection include 'The Bloody Chamber' (a very erotic retelling of the old Bluebeard story), 'The Lady of the House of Love' (a marvellously gothic retelling of the Snow White tale in which Snow White herself has been recast as... a vampire), and 'The Company of Wolves', in which Little Red Riding Hood saves her own life by sleeping with the wolf. Well, wouldn't you?
As you can probably tell from the above, sex is an important theme in The Bloody Chamber. Many of the stories are about sexual awakening; many of them feature girls who are only just beginning to discover the sensual life, usually at the hands of pretty brutish men/monsters. Sound gruesome? It's not. 'Sensual' is the word to describe these stories -- sensual, seductive, luscious and erotic. And yes, some of them are also quite dark, gothic and morbid, but always beautifully and seductively so.
I could go on to writing an essay about Carter's stunning (and occasionally startling) imagery, or about the way she desanitises old tales and gives them a feminist twist, but I think I've said enough here. The bottom line is that this is good stuff and that you should all read it. Personally, I can't wait to read what else Carter has written. She seems quite a discovery....more