This was my first time reading Wilkie Collins. It’s something I’ve intended to do for years and simply never got round to, so when one of my3.5 Stars
This was my first time reading Wilkie Collins. It’s something I’ve intended to do for years and simply never got round to, so when one of my groups suggested we do a group read of The Haunted Hotel I dusted my copy off and eagerly got down to it. Although not quite what I was expecting and far from perfect as either a ghost story or a murder mystery, I enjoyed the story so much that instead of picking up another book I went straight back to page 1 and got started on the other novellas in this collection. And while I would love to say they didn’t disappoint, the truth is that the last one did. However, each story had some strong things going for it, and each well worth the read, especially if you’re a fan of gothic literature.
The first story in this book, Miss or Mrs? is the most grounded and mundane. The atmosphere and threat come not from a sinister setting or some supernatural force, but a brutally human antagonist. Richard Turlington is your typical nasty, controlling, older man who plans to marry a girl in her teens and has an unpleasantly strong influence over her father to make it happen. To be honest there is nothing particularly interesting about him – he’s heavily hinted to be a very bad guy from the first chapter and then goes on to prove himself a very bad guy. Quelle surprise! What was interesting was the heroine – Natalie is fifteen years old and mixed race (mostly of white extraction but with visible signs of her ‘Negro blood and French blood‘). There are some unfortunate implications that it is this non-white blood that makes her sexually mature at such an early age but, for the most part, her appearance is described without unpleasant fetishisation, as both beautiful and desirable. Tall, dark, athletic, and a little bit booby, she’s about as far as I can imagine from the stereotypical Victorian ‘damsel in distress’. And she’s got a likable personality too, I wasn’t shouting at her not to be an idiot at any point – she doesn’t love Turlington, she has no intention of marrying him and defies his commands to stop seeing her friends, but at the same time she’s a fifteen year old nervous at the thought of escaping by eloping with the man she does love and abandoning her father and that conflict was well played out. She actually read like a (mature) teenager rather than either an adult or a child, as often happens. A modern audience does need to take in account the time period when considering the hero however, cause whatever way you look at it and however much he may love her, he’s still a man in his twenties getting it on with his fifteen year old cousin (strangely enough at fifteen I would have been less bothered by the age than the ‘cousin’ thing while now at 23 it’s the other way round).
Overall though it was an enjoyable story. The legal intricacies and hypocrisies of the law that Collins uses were an interesting way to go about trying to solve the conflict and the clandestine marriage, at least, was directly taken from an incident in Collins’ own life which always adds another layer of interest. The contrast and relationship between Natalie and her best friend, who married for a title and money and now regrets it, was a nice example of female friendship (even if their conversations, by necessity of length, all revolved around men) and the comic banter between Natalie’s father and her aunt constantly interrupting each other was well played and not too exaggerated. In the end, however, Miss or Mrs? turned out to be one of those awkward-length stories where an ending that would be absolutely fine in a shorter story just feels rushed and not-quite-right once you’ve spent this much time getting to know the characters. It’s a danger with the novella form, and one that’s hard to avoid, but I just felt a little…cheated I guess with how quickly everything resolved itself at the end.
The Haunted Hotel is, I believe, the best known of these three novellas – and not without reason. As I said before, it’s not at all what I was expecting going in and it’s not ‘perfect’ as either a ghost story, murder mystery, or relationship drama and occasionally the three threads don’t always mesh well together, but it’s a very enjoyable read and certainly not without merit. Here I confess I found the opposite problem to Miss or Mrs? and found the plot far more interesting than the characters. Agnes is alright I suppose, her refusal to blame the ‘other woman’ for her fiancée leaving her is definitely admirable – since the other woman didn’t know he was engaged I’d have had much less sympathy with Agnes if she had blamed her. And her conflicted feeling after he dies mysteriously shortly after his wedding are believable and well portrayed. But eeeeugh, Henry. I just can’t stand men who go by the theory ‘if I ask her enough she’ll say yes eventually’. No! If you keep pressuring a girl who’s not interested all you do is make her uncomfortable. In fairness this was actually well portrayed and other characters did tell him off for his timing, but he still gets the girl in the end. The one character I really liked though was the villainess of the piece – the strangely pale and beautiful Countess Narona who snatched Lord Montbarry away from Agnes by being way more interesting but a lot less nice. A victim of numerous scandals, you’re never sure quite how much she deserves and quite how much of it is malicious gossip that in turn drives her even further away from societal norms and into more scandal.
But onto the plot. I was very surprised to that almost the whole first half of the novel is set in England, rather than Venice and that the Hotel barely features until the latter chapters. The early stuff sets up the characters, the relationships, and the mystery – Lord Montbarry’s death in a Venetian palace while on his honeymoon – but the supernatural gothic stuff I was expecting doesn’t show up at all until the last half. Which results in a slightly disjointed story and me wondering quite why the supernatural stuff was included at all. Don’t get me wrong the idea of a dead man’s relatives staying in the room where he died and each experiencing supernatural visions, odours, or dreams that hint at his death being a concealed murder is a powerful idea. As a plot for a ghost story I like it, it just doesn’t quite work with there being such a very long and mundane set up to it. It feels a bit awkward and out of place, especially when all the clues needed are already there to work out what happened. I’ll give Collins a little credit here and say that the familiar murder-mystery trope used here probably wasn’t as overused in 1878 as it is now in 2012, and that Victorian audiences probably hadn’t been quite so exposed to it, but I still managed to solve the murder within a paragraph of the first real clue appearing – well before any ghostly activity at all.
I was a little disappointed too that not much had been done with Venice itself. It’s such a beautiful, unique, and almost intrinsically gothic city that I wanted to see it getting a bit more love – but the hotel might as well have been anywhere else in the world for all the use that was made of the setting of the city itself. We get lots on the Venetian architecture within the former palace, but very little of the rest of Venice, not even just to add to the already creepy atmosphere. Buuut, that’s just my love of Venice speaking I guess. It’s a compelling story, even if you do get to the conclusion before the characters. It also leaves you with plenty of interesting questions, particularly about the Countess, whilst wrapping the plot itself up quite nicely. Is the Baron really her brother as she claims? Or her lover as is strongly implied by everything else in the story? Personally I think definitely the second, but quite possibly both. Is her folly self-inflicted or spurred on by some supernatural force? Her premonition that Agnes would destroy her genuine? or merely self-fulfilling paranoia?
And now, The Guilty River, the weak link of the book. And it started so well too, a sympathetic protagonist, a sympathetic antagonist, a feisty love interest but then… Eugh, the protagonist lost my sympathy when he refused to condemn the antagonist’s threatening and scary behaviour towards the love interest. When the girl who you fancy’s father says ‘my lodger threatened to kill anyone who tries to take my girl away from him’ the appropriate response is not to think the father must have wound him up into saying something silly. When a girl makes it clear she finds a man’s advances uncomfortable and threatening you don’t feel sympathy for the guy and admire his patience and devotion against adversity. You just don’t. And I don’t care that he’s a pacifist and not the jealous type – you don’t need to be an overprotective jerk to realise that that behavior is totally out of line and not something to sympathise with. It shows a basic lack of respect for the girl that had me hoping that neither of them got her.
And the antagonist – obviously I lost sympathy with him too for this behavior. Suddenly losing your hearing might excuse you from being incredibly depressed and a dick to people for a while but it does not excuse you from sexual harassment. And then the ‘its in the blood’ excuse. Oh of course, you’re a villain because your father abandoned a girl, your uncle cheated at dice and your grandfather was a murderer! Clearly the descent into villainy was almost predetermined! Yeah – not buying it.
Despite a wonderfully realised setting, some humourous fish-out-of-water moments with the protagonist trying to get to grips with Victorian high society, and an interesting storyline, the characters just bothered me too much to rate this one any higher than a 3 star. The only character I felt genuine concern for in this tale of murder and jealousy was the loyal, evil-detecting, dog.
Overall though I think there’s something to appreciate in each of the stories. Although it took me a while to get through the last story I am glad I read the whole book instead of just stopping after The Haunted Hotel. Wilkie Collins writing is much more accessible than I had expected and am now really looking forward to reading The Woman in White for another group next month....more
I really wanted to love this book; the title was intriguing, the cover was stylish, and the blurb sounded like it should be absolutely wonder3.5 stars
I really wanted to love this book; the title was intriguing, the cover was stylish, and the blurb sounded like it should be absolutely wonderful. But somehow, despite my interest in the themes explored, I just didn’t enjoy it all that much. It started off absolutely wonderfully, continued very well for a while but somewhere around the midway point when the lead character started to doubt himself and the advice of his obviously sinister doppelgänger I just stopped caring. I don’t doubt that it’s a very good book that totally deserves it’s place in Scottish canon, or that it’s one of those books that will stick around in my head for years to come, I will probably even reread it at some point because it’s the sort of book that demands a second look and a more measured thought – but I didn’t love it.
I suppose I’d better elaborate. The story is told through two equally unreliable narrators; ‘The Editor’ a modern (read early 19th century) man of science and religious cynic who introduces the context for the main bulk of the story; a manuscript written by the main character, Robert Wringhim, a religious fanatic from the 1600s. The first Editor’s Narrative takes up a little over a third of the book and was both incredibly funny – courtesy of the barbed and unabashedly biased judgements passed down by the editor on the religious ‘bigot or hypocrite’ of the previous age – and highly enjoyable. The Editor tells the story of a marriage torn apart by religious beliefs, and two sons separated in infancy to be raised one by the easy-going husband, the other by the wife and her radically Calvinist ‘religious advisor’ (strongly implied to be the father of the second child). It then skips forward about twenty years to the first meeting of these two brothers in Edinburgh and the sinister way the younger brother, Robert Wringhim insinuates and stalks his way into his brother’s life. This was probably my favourite section of the book, I’m a big fan of both dark humour and creepy gothic horror and this had both in spades. Robert certainly felt like a malignant unnatural and genuinely threatening power, even the editor’s cynicism couldn’t erase the hints at the supernatural as well, and I was made to genuinely fear for his brother’s plight.
What then followed was this story told from Robert Wringham’s own perspective. And boy…he’s a nasty little shit of a man. Raised from birth to think he’s ‘special’ and ‘better’ than the ‘sinners’, Robert prescribes to the belief of predestination – that only a few pre-chosen people will ever gain heaven while everybody else is doomed to spend eternity in hell and, crucially, that nothing a man does in his life will ever be able to change this ultimate fate. Instead of spreading love and tolerance Wringham and his adopted father and ‘fire and brimstone’ Christians and the worst sort of hypocrites who see themselves as superior to everybody else. In his youth this religious upbringing causes Robert a lot of angst, as he owns up to himself he sins daily and is a profligate liar and a manipulative little shit who attempts to ruin the lives of people he doesn’t like. Thus he is always in fear of divine recrimination until reaching the day when his father informs him that he is one of ‘the Elect’ and thus destined for heaven. On this same day Robert meets a mysterious doppelgänger who discusses religion with him, gradually tearing down what few merciful doctrines and moral qualms Robert has and convincing him that it is his duty as one of God’s chosen to cut down and destroy the sinners of the world. And so the petty shit becomes a would-be murderer, justifying his crimes with religious fanatacism.
So far, so good, and I had a lot of fun watching the story in Edinburgh and the destruction of his brother’s life play out from Robert’s perspective. The supernatural elements only hinted at in the editor’s narrative come out in full force in Robert’s as his mysterious companion changes faces at will and is strongly implied to be the Devil himself. It’s only after the conclusion of the Edinburgh story that I felt the narrative began to lose steam and go off the rails a bit. I don’t particularly want to say much more about the rest of the story because I do think it might go a bit too far into spoilers so I’ll just say that it wasn’t at all what I expected and I found it to be a bit of a directionless mess after a brilliant and darkly humourous first half. I don't know... I would just have really liked Wringhim to play a more active and concious part in certain events. The Editior’s narrative at the end detailing how he came across the Wringhim manuscript and the meta-level story within a story within a story also did very little for me.
As I said though, it’s a book that will definitely lurk in my memory and one that I will almost certainly return to later and with fresh eyes, and probably gain fresh understanding from it. Although I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the later half of the book I found the novel, in its entirety, an absolutely fascinating read and a chilling warning against putting religious dogma and doctrine above human compassion....more
5 Stars Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectiv5 Stars Crossposted from my blog. Based on an unabridged audiobook version - blog review contains comments on the narration.
If I was reviewing objectively there is no way Dracula would get 5 stars. Love it as I do, it’s got some glaring flaws. The reason Dracula is regarded as a ‘classic’ isn’t because it’s a literary masterpiece on par with the greats – it’s really not – but because it’s really good at what it is; crowd-pleasing horror, and because it helped create the popularity and features of the ‘modern vampire’. Thankfully however book reviewing is all about opinions and I can be as unobjective as I want.
I first read Dracula when I was about 12 and this was my first time going back to it. I have to admit, it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. If I read it today it would probably only get 4 stars, but nostalgia and the love of gothic novels it inspired mean I just don’t have the heart to take that star away from it. Flawed as it is, I still love it.
And there are bits that are truly deserving of 5 stars. The whole first section where Jonathan Harker is in Transylvania visiting the Count’s castle is just wonderful. Told through Jonathan’s diary, the slow realisation of what his host is and the danger he is in makes for intense reading (or listening). However it’s easy to get a spooky atmosphere going when your setting is a deserted, ancient, castle sitting atop a cliff in a foreign and superstitious land, once the action moves to England the atmosphere suffers. Whitby is windswept and beautifully grim enough that the build up to, and events following, the Count’s arrival there still feel tense and scary, and for a while John Seward’s madhouse and his dealings with Renfield – a patient who believes that by eating spiders and flies he absorbs their lifeforce – is creepily compelling. But…well after the first vampire staking the book loses steam.
A lot of the tension in these first parts is tied over from the cliffhanger of Jonathan’s diary and not knowing whether he survived or not. The characters in England are not too compelling all by themselves. Harker’s fiancé Mina is alright, she’s a strong independent woman in a way that’s acceptable to the Victorians – which means she can write shorthand and use a typewriter. But then there’s her friend Lucy who is your stereotypical damsel in distress, going sleepwalking round graveyards in her nightgown, and the three almost interchangeable men who fancy her. Dr. John Seward, already mentioned, owns a madhouse and is one of the main narrators – the story being epistolary, told through letters and diary entries – Quincey Morris is a Texan who knows a lot about guns and uses amusing ‘slang’ but is actually quite fun, but Arthur Holmwood, the rich son of a British Lord, is a total snorefest. So guess which one Lucy goes for…
It’s all a bit too coincidental and neatly connected to take entirely seriously – Jonathan Harker is engaged to Mina – who is best friends with Dracula’s first victim – who turned down a proposal from John Seward who lives next door to Dracula’s new house – and was taught by Van Helsing, who is the only person in the Victorian world to recognise and know how to kill a vampire. But well, I don’t think it’s a book you’re meant to take entirely seriously. One thing I did like about the characters though; these blokes manage to stay friends and not get pissy at each other after Lucy makes her choice – they respect her decision, stop pursuing her romantically, and stay friends with both each other and her without being all grumpy about it. Can you imagine that happening in a modern vampire novel?
Up until the first staking the gothic atmosphere of the first section remains, if in slightly lesser form, as John and Van Helsing struggle to save Lucy’s life from her ‘mysterious wasting disease’ and near constant blood loss every night. After it’s been established what’s causing it however the book slows down to a bit of a crawl. There are lots of conversations where the characters inform each other of facts the reader already knows and seemingly have endless discussions about what to do without actually doing very much. Instead of trying to hunt Dracula down it becomes a ‘destroy them all’ quest surrounding some of the objects he brought with him from Transylvania. Also while John Seward, Quincey, and Arthur all love to gush about Lucy, Van Helsing seems to have a raging hard-on for Mina (and I am so sorry to have given you that mental image). After he meets her he barely seems to go two sentences without praising her in some way and instead of being ‘Mina’ she’s always some variation of ‘that wonderful woman’. It gets a bit old after a while and I kinda wished the characters would stop praising each other by the time I reached the half way point.
Eventually though, the stakes get raised again with a threat to ‘wonderful wonderful Miss Mina’ and we get the gang finally heading out to take on Dracula himself. They’re no Buffy though so don’t expect too much in the way of action. And the hunt, like the middle section, tends to drag on a bit before the rather sudden conclusion.
I’ve made it sound really bad now I’m afraid…it’s not. It’s a good fun book and I have a lot of affection for it – I wouldn’t give it 5 stars if I didn’t – but I’m not blind to its flaws and don’t think they should be glossed over when writing a review. The story starts off very strong and gets increasingly weak, but there’s still enough to sustain it, and no one can doubt how influential a book it is. Dracula is a very compelling, if simplistic, villain and I would take him over a certain other vampire who isn’t killed by sunlight any day....more
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years (ever since studying The Woman in Black for my A levels) and somehow just never 4 stars
This is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years (ever since studying The Woman in Black for my A levels) and somehow just never got round to picking up. Thankfully Goodreads came to my rescue again when one of my groups set it as their August group read and forced me to finally grab myself a copy and get reading. And I’m very glad they did because it’s the sort of book that’s right up my alley.
Walter Hartright, a young drawing master, runs into a mysterious woman dressed all in white wandering along the road at night on the very eve he is due to depart for a situation in the country. He helps her to escape from the men pursuing her and then tries his best to forget about it – despite the fact that she seems intimately familiar with the same family and country house he is about to take his position at, and that when he gets there he finds she bears and uncanny resemblance to his new pupil, Laura Fairlie. As Walter falls hopelessly in love with Laura and discovers her longstanding engagement to Sir Percival Glyde, the mystery of the ‘Woman in White’ and the words they exchanged that night begin to haunt him. Does she know some dreadful secret about Laura’s fiancé? Was he the one who sent his men to pursue her that night and why? Or is she really as she seems and just a poor escaped madwoman?
As a gothic epistolary novel, told through various character’s accounts, I really liked the structure of this book, as well as the different styles and voices of the various narrators. The justification given in the first chapter that ‘the story here presented will be told by more than one pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness – with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect’ is interesting – and very telling of the fact that Collins was himself a lawyer. It certainly made me question the reliability and bias of the narrator’s and I enjoyed the little glimpses were a minor character uninvolved with the wider implications, such as the cook, housekeeper, took up the pen to narrate specific events. By using diary entries and statements and accounts written in hindsight by the characters Collins avoids the dreadful ‘as you already know…’ infodumping that characterises epistolary novels told exclusively though letter writing. There’s a definite purpose to the story and narration but you also can’t implicitly trust anything anyone says either and the narrator’s are frequently wrong or misguided in their analysis.
Walter Hartright and Marian Halcombe, Laura’s half-sister, are the main narrators but quite possibly the least interesting. Walter is a fairly typical Victorian hero, while Marian is meant to be a ‘strong woman’ and for the most part is, but falls into that unpleasant habit of internalised misogyny that strong women written by men often seems to feel. I swear that after the 75thbillion time she said something along the lines of ‘but I’m only a woman’ or ‘I didn’t share the defects of my sex’ or ‘he thought me the most sensible woman he had met in a long time’ I was just about ready to slap her. Being female is not a defect! But then I remember just how easy it is to be made to feel this way – even today – when everything around you promotes the message that women aren’t as good as men. And then when I compare her with the fragile, constantly swooning, Laura I end up totally seeing why she thinks her ‘unfeminine’ behaviour is so remarkable. Even Walter seems to prefer Marian, who he treats as a respected equal, to his beloved Laura, who he treats like a particularly vulnerable and sensitive six year old. The best narration in the book, though, comes from the more unsympathetic characters; the hilariously uncaring and hypochondriac Frederick Fairlie, the cold and haughty Mrs Catherick, and the jovial villain, Count Fosco.
It’s a long book, at over 600 pages, and it can drag a bit, but a lot happens. And a lot of it very melodramatic – women fall down in swoons at bad news and catch deadly fevers from wearing wet clothes while men plot elaborate murders, steal money from their wives, manipulate everybody around them, and go on random expeditions to Central America. It’s very much classic Victorian gothic, and a lot of the tropes and twists are no longer shocking but fairly predictable and almost cliché. In that way I found the first half of the book, which was all about the slow building of atmosphere and suspense, vastly superior to the second half where things seemed almost rushed into conclusions with a lot more resting solely on sheer coincidence and dumb luck than felt satisfactory – hence the 4 star rating rather than a 5. The conclusion of Count Fosco’s storyline in particular felt both totally predictable and completely out of nowhere - as if Collins had written himself into a corner in how to deal with him and simply jumped on the first idea of how to get out of it that popped into his head.
That said it’s an enjoyable read. The conclusions left me not quite loving it but I definitely liked it a lot and look forward to reading more of Collins’ work....more
I read from numerous short story collections rather erratically so it could be a while before I finish this one - so instead of waiting until I've reaI read from numerous short story collections rather erratically so it could be a while before I finish this one - so instead of waiting until I've read all of these and then posting a review for the collection after I've forgotten a lot of the details (which I'll probably do as well) I am going to use his space to post mini-reviews of particularly noteworthy stories as and when I read them.
2/14 stories read
The Vampyre, John Polidori (14/06/12)
The title book of this collection, and a few words have to be said about the author, the conception of the story, and its literary influence before I can start to asses it on its own merits. For the benefit of anyone who doesn't read much gothic fiction this is the story that brought the modern idea of the 'aristocratic and sexy' vampire to England - predating both Le Fanu's Carmilla and Stoker's Dracula. The author, Polidori, was a physician to Lord Byron and the story was conceived in the same evening of competitive ghost stories that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. As such, the titular vampire, Lord Ruthven is widely believed to be based on Lord Byron and the relationship between Lord Ruthven and his victim reflecting an exaggerated version of that between Byron and Polidori. Considering that the name 'Lord Ruthven' had already been used for a character clearly meant to reflect Byron in another work of fiction written by a spurned lover, the Byron as the inspiration for The Vampyre is a theory I can accept - to an extent. Not being a Byron scholar though that's not really my interest, so onto the merits of the story!
While I really enjoyed it, I wasn't blown away. The narrative voice is incredibly passive and it reads more like an oral story than it does a written work; very bare-bones with little dialogue, a detached third-person narration, and scant description. It fits with the type of story - especially when you remember that the origin was essentially a group of writers making up campfire stories - but it really doesn't make for the most involved reading. I actually quite liked it - it enabled me to imagine the details more vividly - but it's a bit like reading an urban legend rather than a piece of literature - it doesn't suck you into caring about the characters, it just narrates the 'facts' of the story and leaves it at that.
The ending was also rushed, the last line unintentionally full of cheesy Hammer Horror movie DUN DUN DUN! It even has the last word capitalised with an exclamation mark at the end. After all the build-up I expected more - not for it to follow a different path, it was predictably signposted from the start, but for it to execute the final crime with a bit more style and finesse. Ending aside though I liked the plot - the danger of Lord Ruthven isn't just a physical thirst for blood but that he is 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know' (I'm sorry, it's cliché but it was fun!). Sure he kills beautiful young virgins and drains their blood but his real evil is more insidious and far more terrifying - a delight in finding and corrupting innocence and virtue, and joy in ruining lives. Lord Ruthven is a man who rewards vice with the ability to indulge in it even further, takes glee in misery, and goes out of his way to destroy the life of his idealistic young companion. His evil comes from his force of personality as much as it comes from his biological necessity to drink blood - and he's a stronger character for it than the rather simplistic Dracula. Or he would be, if this short and sketchy story had been fleshed out into the atmospheric novella it should clearly have been.
In short, I can see how it was as influential as it is and how the ideas sparked the whole vampire trend in England - transforming a rather base peasant myth of living corpses into a dark, charismatic, and deeply seductive danger - particularly for the upper classes. Unfortunately the execution never quite lived up to the ideas or potential and I never truly managed to bring myself to care about any of the victims or their sufferings, so detached was the narration. It's a good read, a fun read, a must for any vampire fan, but it left me wishing there was just a little bit more to it.
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by DaphneCrossposted/tweaked from my blog.
Originally published as Not After Midnight, this collections brings together five atmospheric short stories by Daphne du Maurier. They’re a bit of an odd bunch – a mix of the supernatural and the mundane. Some of them embrace the ‘unknown’ with psychics, pagan worship, and life after death, while others seem to be building you up towards that only to tear it away by having the explanation something completely grounded in reality. Whether you find this second-guessing rewarding or frustrating, though, is probably personal preference. One theme that runs through all the stories, however, is the idea of taking the protagonist away from their home and putting them into an unfamiliar environment, where the setting itself serves to increase the sense of suspense and the character’s own alienation. It’s a collection of stories about how people react and adjust when taken out of their comfort zone and thrown into creepy situations they have very little control over. And it has to be said, most characters don’t do so well…
The first story in the collection, Don’t Look Now tells the story of a married couple holidaying in Venice as they attempt to get over the death of their young daughter and repair their own relationship. It is by the most famous story in this collection, having been made into a classic horror film in 1973 with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland. Now I haven’t yet seen the film but my big sister has, and I still remember how freaked out by it she was when she came back from her friend’s sleepover and told me about it. With that in mind and my dad’s explanation of the storyline and constant ‘this reminds me of Don’t Look Now‘ and ‘watch out for little girls in raincoats!’ whenever we ended up wandering round Venetian backstreets and canals at night on family holidays (which happens surprisingly often actually), I had been building this expectation for years that the book must be something truly atmospheric and full of suspense. It wasn’t. I did my best to make it so – I read it while I was in Venice, in the evening, on a poorly lit bench in a small square off a load of little backalleys that I had to wander back through to get to my hostel – and it still didn’t evoke the slightest sense of unease. Maybe I did it wrong, maybe if I had read it at home with only my imagination and memories of Venice I’d have found it creepier. And there’s also the fact I had the plot spoilt for me by hearing about the film – which actually changes a few key details in ways that actually improve it. In the book the explantion for John’s obsession with the little girl in the raincoat is never really that satisfactory and the psychic old women just seem random, disconnected and kind of silly – the film’s decision to make the raincoat girl resemble the dead daughter would have done a lot to improve the sense of suspense and unease both about the supernatural elements and the character’s mental health and just well...make the whole story a bit less random. The ending though, the ending I actually liked in all it’s silly, unintentional hilarity. I’ve seen other reviews claim that du Maurier does a great job of building up suspense only to fail with sudden endings – it’s a criticism I actually agree with in many cases, but in this story I think there was the opposite problem. The ending, though silly, would have worked really well if the build up of suspense had been better done in the main body. As it was, the story just seemed to have too much of John and Laura going out for diner and days out and having rather dull marital disagreements and not enough taking advantage of the creepy setting to explore the grief of losing a child.
The second story, however, does suffer from the sudden ending negating the atmospheric tension of everything that came before, and in a pretty bad way. Not After Midnight tells the story of a ‘lonely teacher’ who goes on holiday to Crete to get some painting done and ends up involved with the mysterious American couple over in one of the other holiday homes. I’d actually take issue with the back cover (and Wikipedia’s) description of the main character as ‘lonely’ – he doesn’t seem lonely to me, he seems like someone who likes being alone to get on with his own thing and doesn’t actually want to be bothered – especially by constantly drunk, boorish Americans. Surely nobody who’s ever experienced being next to one of them on holiday can blame him for that? The loneliness is there, certainly, but it’s something that he develops afterwards and as a result of his holiday and that’s actually pretty important – he wasn’t particularly damaged before the events of the story. To miss that is almost to miss the point. But onto the story… I liked the build up of atmosphere and suspense here a whole lot better than I did in Don’t Look Now. Where it fell down though was the ending, which was frankly pretty rubbish. It felt way too sudden, rushed and dropped in there without any explanation purely for ‘shock factor’. I had to go back and spend a few minutes trying to piece how it all fitted together with the rest of the story – and not in the fun ‘oooooh, I get that now!’ way but the ‘that really should have been a little clearer, and I still don’t get why she said that if what was going on was actually this...’ way. Just a little longer drawing out the ending and making sure the pieces all fitted together a bit more neatly would really have improved this one, because the actual story, though hardly ‘serious literature’ wasn’t that bad.
A Border-Line Case was much more solidly written and probably, if I was being completely objective, the best of the bunch. I can’t rate it too highly though because it uses several tropes that I’m frankly a bit bored with. And, though I was surprised with the twist in the middle, I saw the end ‘twist’ coming a mile off. The heroine of this story is aspiring actress, Shelagh, travels to Ireland to visit Nick, an estranged old friend of her father's, because of an off-hand remark her dad made shortly before his death about wanting to make up. Of course Ireland and England don’t have the best of relations in the 1970s so Shelagh, a little out of her depth, uses her actress skills to disguise her identity. And…well…she must be a damned good actress because the lies she makes up are totally transparent bullshit to anyone simply reading them on the page. People buy (or pretend to buy) them though and she eventually gets ushered in to meet Nick on his mysterious island of mysteriousness where he is surrounded by young men and likes digging up iron age burial sites and not reporting them to trained archaeologists to make proper surveys of (yes, that is something that bugs me in real life, proper archeological surveys are important damnit!). We get some wonderfully 1970s PC ‘oh my god, he might be a homo‘ thoughts from Shelagh as she tries to puzzle out the reason for Nick’s reclusiveness which made me laugh a little. Which was good, as her other thoughts made me want to bash her head in for being a fucking idiot with no ‘creep creep, stay away from this person’ sense of self preservation. She’s only 19, I know, but really; everything about the situation says ‘run for the fucking hills’. A solidly written story, though. Definitely the most consistently well written of the first three stories, but I found neither main character relatable, likable, or particularly believable, enough for me to enjoy it very much. The ‘twist’, though possibly relatively shocking in the 70s, was pretty predictable and, by now, majorly overdone. I’ll give it the fact it has a good title than can be interpreted in a number of ways though – that was pretty clever.
And now my favourite, The Way of the Cross, and I’ll admit this is probably because I have a bit of a fascination with Jerusalem. This story has a far larger cast of characters - a whole tour group of pilgrims - all given about equal attention. The story kicks off with poor Rev. Edward Babcock, a relatively young, urban cleric away on his own holiday, having to step in, last-minute, to be a tour guide for a group of snobby village parishioners he doesn’t know. It takes a while to get into it and I have to admit to being frustrated by du Maurier’s use of the whole ‘young attractive women cannot resist dreadful, boorish, middle-aged men’ theme. It just drives me batty, these men (and I include Mr. De Winter from Rebecca here as well) are so absolutely dire. I don’t know why anyone, regardless of age, would ever fancy them ever. There were enough characters, however, that if one storyline bothered me it was quickly moved away from to feature somebody elses. The basic plot is quite a simple one – all the characters get separated from each other, overhear unpleasant truths and gossip about themselves, and have an absolutely horrible time – mostly in karmic and amusing ways. There’s a sense at the end though that maybe, just maybe, they learn something from their experience and emerge better people for having visited the Holy City. Given the limited page and large number of characters it’s all a bit superficial, but it’s not bad. I actually liked the ‘annoying’ know-it-all kid, who has a great time approaching Jerusalem’s depiction in the bible and the reality of the present city as an archeological problem, rather than desperately seeking spiritual guidance or forgiveness. Questioning whether an important historic site really is where, or as old as, the tourist board claims it is, is something me and my dad often do on holiday and I appreciated the fact that somebody was culturally aware and respectful of the other religions that also live and worship in Jerusalem . A fairly simple, quite formulaic little story, with rather two-dimensional characters. But the prose did by far the best job in this book of evoking a strong sense of location.
The last story, The Breakthrough, is probably an acquired taste. It’s pretty much an unpfront science-fiction/supernatural crossover. Our ‘hero’, Steven the computer guy, is moved to some arse-end-of-nowhere government research facility run by a nutter who the whole scientific community mocks and peopled by about two equally secretive underlings. The machines are all called Charon 1, 2 or 3 so if you know your Greek mythology it’s no surprise what the ‘secret’ aim of the research is. It’s…I dunno. It’s not bad but it isn’t an especially original idea and the execution feels incredibly dated… There’s state of the art giant talking computers, hypnotism, ‘idiots’ (not my wording!) possessing untapped potential abilities to move things around with their emotions, a dog obedience-trained to the point of brainwashing, twins that have a special bond that continues even after one dies… it’s as if du Maurier’s throwing in absolutely everything she can think of - and it’s only a forty page story! It’s just too much, too crowded, everything's competing for attention and it only really serves to undermine the actual themes and questions the plot is trying to raise. Maybe if I was more of sci-fi fan than a gothic/supernatural/suspense person, I would find this more to my taste but it just felt…inelegant I suppose. Unpolished. Not really thought through.
Overall an interesting collection. Although I didn’t rate all the stories too highly, I found something to enjoy about all of them and I don’t regret spending time reading this. Yeah, it’s not the best and not quite my thing but it was interesting at least. My main problem wasn’t that the stories weren’t good, but that I got very frustrated that a lot of it could just be so much better if only it had been more vigorously edited and reworked. Both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight had the potential to be a hell of a lot better than they actually were....more
Read a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of shoRead a while ago. Crossposting original review from my blog
Fairy tales again…I promise I do read other things though!
Actually it’s a collection of short stories based on fairy tales. Some stray closer to simple retellings than others (The Bloody Chamber, The Courtship of Mr Lyon) but they’re all original works rather than just an update of Grimm/Perrault.
I haven’t read much Angela Carter before – just Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales, which she compiled rather than wrote herself – but I had heard a lot about this collection from friends who studied it at school or university, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. In the end I loved it. Not all stories quite hit the note for me – The Erl-King was probably my least favourite – but each had such an interesting idea behind it, or style of writing, and I could see what Carter was aiming for that it didn’t cause me to feel I should deduct a star. And even if some stories were superior to others they all worked together as a complete collection very well. Almost every story contained a female character that subverted the traditional ‘fairy tale female’ role in some way, however subtle, and was a theme of female sexuality running through all of them that united the collection just as much as the fact that they are all based on folklore and fairytale.
Of course this isn’t for everyone. In fact it’s what put a few of my friends off the stories – that there was so much sex and focus on sexuality, virginity and menstruation in something that was meant to be a ‘fairy tale’. But as someone who frequently finds myself objecting to passive female roles in both fairy tales, novels, and TV and film I found myself really enjoying this book, even if parts of it did seem a bit heavy handed. I also tend to agree with Carter in that these things are there in the original stories if you just look and think for a few moments, she’s just highlighted them and given the women a bit more agency. So for me it didn’t seem like it was ‘ruining my favourite childhood stories’ at all, but merely offering a different perspective on them.
The book opens with the title story, The Bloody Chamber, by far the longest story of the collection and quite possibly my favourite. Based on the tale of Bluebeard, its plot sticks very closely to that of the original, but is told in first person from the perspective of Bluebeard’s latest wife and updated to mid 20th century France. Instead of being an anonymous woman in a fairy tale the unnamed narrator becomes a real person, easier to relate to – a young woman not forced into but willingly marrying a much older man she feels nothing for, and is a little intimidated by, in return for his money. I have to admit this characterisation did not endear me to her at first but being able to read her thoughts, why she had done it, how she had had to rebel against her more sensible mother, and the slow realisation of what the marriage actually entails helped me to feel for her as a person who had made an understandable, if very unfortunate, decision. By telling it through the teenage bride’s eyes Carter highlights the more subtle everyday horrors that are there but very much brushed over in the original – the terror of a young girl getting married, the fear of her wedding night, anxiety about disappointing her more experienced husband, the realisation she’s trapped in a relationship with someone she doesn’t want to be with, having sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, enjoying sex with a man she’s scared of and repulsed by, the irrational jealousy of a man’s previous partners and inferiority complex that comes with that. It’s all very relatable, even though I haven’t exactly been there myself. The discovery of the ‘bloody chamber’ itself is just the culmination of a growing sense of unease and ‘wrongness’ about the husband that has been building up from the beginning. As well as bringing out these overlooked themes I also prefer Carter’s ending to the original. It’s arguably still a bit of a deus ex machina but it is a better foreshadowed one.
The next two stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride are both based on the story of Beauty and the Beast. Mr Lyon again stays pretty close to the original in terms of plot only updating it to an era of motorcars, while Tiger’s Bride is more of a subversion. Of the two I preferred The Tiger’s Bride, perhaps because it didn’t feel quite so familiar. The ‘Beauty’ character’s father being a compulsive gambler who loses their fortune, drags her through Europe, and finally gambles her away to ‘la Bestia’ was a refreshing twist on the kindly old man of most versions, struck by misfortune through no fault of his own. Again this story is told in first person by the heroine but she’s a much more feisty character than the narrator of The Bloody Chamber and reacts in quite different ways to their broadly similar situation, quietly refusing to be dominated by the men in her life and offering no compromises to them until they compromise themselves.
Puss-in-Boots is a very different story in many ways from the rest. It’s a comedy for one, not as gothic in tone as the other tales, and the female character stays fairly firmly on the sidelines. It’s told rather brilliantly through the eyes of Puss in Boots, which makes for great lines such as ‘I went about my ablutions, tonguing my arsehole with the impeccable hygienic integrity of cats’ and tells the story of the trickster cat trying to secure the beautiful, married, woman his whoremongering master has fallen for. It’s a humorous, very bawdy, little story that doesn’t require thinking too seriously for.
The Erl-King and The Snow Child I’m honestly still not sure about. I know what Carter was trying to do with The Erl-King and I actually really like the concept but, for whatever reason, I found this story a lot harder than the others to get sucked into and enjoy. I think it’s one I might have to give a reread at some later date to get full enjoyment from it. Meanwhile The Snow Child is such a short and odd little vignette writing up my thoughts could only spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it – but it’s the story most of my friends studying this book had the most trouble with and I can see why.
The Lady in the House of Love then plays off vampire mythology rather than fairy tales, telling the story of Dracula’s lonely descendent stuck in her crumbling mansion unable to see the light of day, and the arrival of a bicycling soldier there on the eve of the First World War. It’s the most original of the stories and, I think, a beautiful example of vampire fiction – haunting, lonely, and gothic. Possibly not what one would really expect in a book that’s meant to be based on fairy tales, but as a lover of gothic literature as well I wasn’t complaining. It was one of the highlights of the book for me and I think would stand up well in any compilation of vampire short stories as well (in fact I spotted several people here recommending it for consideration as one of the best works of vampire literature since Dracula).
And from vampires to werewolves, the last three stories all play off Little Red Riding Hood and similar stories. The first, The Werewolf is again so short saying much at all would spoil it so I’ll content myself with saying that I liked it, but that the story seemed very familiar – though that could easily be the result of pop-culture osmosis, (this book being published in 1979 and having a fairly big impact) I think I’ve read almost identical stories in collections of folklore. The Company of Wolves is more strongly linked to the familiar Red Riding Hood tale, with the girl being lured from the path by the ‘wolf’ who beats her to her grandmother’s house. To be honest though I’ve heard so many interpretations and retellings going ‘Red Riding Hood’s really just about sex – didn’t you know? The Red Hood totally symbolises menstruation’ that I just don’t particularly care for hearing it again. Angela Carter was probably one of the first to do so and it’s possibly this story that has influenced so many others to bang on about it though so I will cut her some slack. It’s a very well written piece but for me the standout part was the first third or so, before it gets to the Red Riding Hood narrative, and is just giving lots and lots of lovely folklore-and-mythology-like anecdotes about wolves and werewolves and the stories of people who have been turned into wolves.
Wolf-Alice is the final story based, apparently, on a version of the Red Riding Hood tale I’m not familiar with, tells the story of a feral child raised by wolves. ‘Rescued’ after her adoptive mother is shot dead she goes first to a convent, where they despair at her wild ways, and then sent off as a servant for the mysterious Duke – who has no reflection and likes to cannibalise the corpses from graveyards. I had a bit of trouble trying to work out what exactly the Duke was meant to be – a pre-Dracula type vampire or werewolf perhaps, when the two were more similar and a lot less romantic, or possibly a ghoul. But in the end it doesn’t really matter – whatever he is he’s lost enough humanity that he no longer has a reflection and humanity itself is disgusted and fearful of him. The story’s not really about him anyway (I just found him fascinating) but a coming of age story for Wolf-Alice who, raised by wolves, has no understanding of either time or puberty but has to grow up and develop from a wild dog-like child into a young woman, with only her own reflection in the Dukes mirror to guide her. It’s a powerful little story, but for me not quite as good as The Bloody Chamber or The Lady of the House of Love.
Although I didn’t love every individual story in this book I think it is a great collection, well worthy of five stars, and one I am sure I will be returning to frequently when I want a short and familiar read. The sex and feminism probably isn’t for everyone, I’m ready to allow that, but I quite like a bit of intelligent feminism in my literature, especially if it’s challenging the predominantly passive role of women in fairy tales and giving them back a bit of a voice. The narrator in The Bloody Chamber may do almost exactly the same thing as she does in the traditional stories, but here there’s a sense of her being a fully realised person, not a generic woman who does what she does because women are all fundamentally the same. ...more
Looks like it’s unpopular literary opinions time! And as a self-proclaimed lover of gothic fiction and a massive fan of ghost stories this is g 3 Stars
Looks like it’s unpopular literary opinions time! And as a self-proclaimed lover of gothic fiction and a massive fan of ghost stories this is going to be even more blasphemous. So here goes: I don’t think The Turn of the Screw is very good. I didn’t find it scary, I didn’t find it exciting, I didn’t find it atmospheric or tense or any of those other descriptions people use for this book and I didn’t find it either surprising or thought-provoking. After all the hype surrounding this novella, all the praise for Henry James as a master of the ghost story, I’m afraid I rather found myself feeling supremely underwhelmed by it. That’s not to say I thought it was ‘bad’ or that I actively ‘disliked’ it – it was certainly interesting to read it knowing how much of a classic it is and how well discussed certain aspects of it are, but as a story it did pretty much nothing for me and left me feeling, if anything, rather neutral. I got on a little better with the second, much lesser known, story in this book, Owen Wingrave. But neither story, I would say, are ‘among the finest examples of the genre’.
The Turn of the Screw, famously, tells the story of a governess who believes the children in her care are being corrupted by evil spirits and the efforts she goes to protect them. Equally, if not more, famous is the critical debate surrounding the governess’s own sanity. Is she just imagining the ghosts? Are they real? Are they merely representations of her own sexual frustration? Blah blah sexist-freudian-wank blah. The actual story when you get down to it, however, is a pretty simple piece of genre writing and was viewed as such for a long time after it was published. I, personally, don’t think that there’s any doubt the ghosts do exist – the governess describes the ghost of a man she’s never met too well for that. The problem though is that I also have no doubts that (whether James intended it or not) the governess herself is a deeply unhinged individual with an obsessive and paranoid personality, who latches onto first impressions and performs some of the most astounding logical gymnastics to reach the conclusions that she does. As such, although I believe that the ghosts in the book are real I have absolutely no reason to believe that they are evil. This interpretation (and it is only my interpretation) makes it less a terrifyingly tense story about whether the spirits will succeed in corrupting the children and more a gothic comedy of errors - ‘lets watch how the governess leaps to ridiculous assumptions, fucks everything up, and ruins everyone’s lives’ – or at least that’s how it felt reading it.
The children, I think, I was meant to find creepy. I didn’t. I found the governess’s instant ‘they’re such perfect angelic little cherubs!’ attitude worrying – it’s a deeply unhealthy attitude for anyone working with children to have – but the children themselves simply weren’t scary. Miles was weird and he spoke like a grandad, but it was more irritating than sinister. He never creeped me out but I did keep thinking that his dialogue was better suited to somebody wearing velvet slippers and smoking a pipe. (Sidenote: any woman who allows herself to be refered to as ‘my dear’ by a ten-year-old will get no sympathy from me ever). Of course a massive part of while the adult-child relationships didn’t work for me is because of the values and expectations in the time this was written and that, since The Turn of the Screw, creepy children have become rather a staple of the horror genre. By my modern standards Miles doesn’t read as normal but he was hardly creepy enough to be creepy; he just came off as a child written by somebody who couldn’t write children (unfair, I know, and almost certainly untrue, but that’s how he came across). So with neither the ghosts or the creepy children providing me with scares I was left with an awkward little story written by an unreliable narrator whose writing style I didn’t particularly like.
As a result although I know that this is hugely influential story and that many people love it, and find it absolutely tense and atmospheric and everything the blurb claims, I just failed to click with it on every level. It was ‘interesting’, I suppose, and I’m sure I could have some wonderful debates about the story – but I would enjoy them much more than I enjoyed the actual reading of it.
Owen Wingrave I much prefered. It’s a lot less of a ghost story – the supernatural element being more of a deus ex machina than anything else – and it’s certainly not a scary ghost story, but I felt a lot more invested and interested in the characters than I did in The Turn of the Screw, probably because they felt more realistic. Essentially though it’s an anti-military, anti-violence fable. Owen Wingrave, the sole male descendent of a deeply military family decides to quit the army after deciding that war is a repugnant and needless activity that he wants no part of. His family and his implied love interest disapprove and aspersions are made against his bravery. Conveniently enough for everybody involved though there’s a haunted room in the house where not even the bravest soldiers of the family have dared spend a night! It’s all a bit neat and convenient and the ghost story element of it really is just a slightly clumsy tool for the moral of the tale, which could probably have been delivered better with a more mundane example of bravery (there are plenty of ways for a pacifist to prove bravery or ‘worth’ that don’t involve ghosts). The ending is rather abrupt too but it’s a nice little story none the less.
Over all though my experience with this book wasn’t at all what I’d hoped. I think I probably expected a bit much from it, but even without those disappointed expectations I don’t think I’d ever class either of these two stories as particularly great examples of the ghost story genre – the master of which I’d say is actually M.R. James....more