Daphne Du Maurier, Jamaica Inn (1936)

What strikes me most about Jamaica Inn is just how much Daphne Du Maurier’s writing improved in the novels that followed this romantic thriller. If she’d written nothing else, I suspect she’d have fallen into obscurity along with a lot of other popular women writers of her day.  I read Jamaica Inn at the same time as I was reading a collection of her late stories from the 1970s and while I enjoyed both books, if it wasn’t for the same name on the cover, I probably wouldn’t have recognised them as works by the same author. But, having said all of that, Jamaica Inn does point the way towards Du Maurier’s later works.

The novel is set in Cornwall in the 1820s. Our orphaned heroine, Mary Yellen, goes to live with her mother’s sister Patience at the isolated Jamaica Inn. To her alarm, she finds her aunt a shadow of her former self, utterly dominated by her brutal husband, Joss Merlyn.  Worse is to come when Mary realises there are wicked doings afoot at the Inn, the least of which is smuggling. Determined to discover the truth and get her aunt away from Jamaica Inn, Mary finds herself locked in a dangerous battle of wills with her uncle. Matters are further complicated when she meets two other men, Joss’s devilishly attractive younger brother and the strange, elusive Vicar of Altarnun. Who can Mary trust to help her in her predicament?

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Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories (1948)

Ever since I finished reading the stories in this collection, I’ve been trying to articulate the effect they’ve had on me. It’s easy enough to appreciate Shirley Jackson as a superb writer who had absolute control of her material, but when it comes to discussing the content of the stories, I find myself struggling because they seem to say so much and I always end up with more questions than answers.  If I had to try and sum it up, I suppose I’d say these stories explore the high price attached to the modern western construction the “self” as something that must be constantly defended against the “others” it attempts to exclude and deny.

Jackson is very much a gothic writer and one trope that appears in a lot of the stories, and is often associated with the gothic, is that of “the double”.  Her use of doubling produces a sense of what Sigmund Freud would call “the uncanny”, that is, the deeply unsettling feeling that something which should have remained secret and hidden has come to light. Like seeing oneself reflected in a distorted mirror, the uncanny double makes the familiar world appear disturbingly strange. In ‘The Renegade’, we find a middle-class housewife doubled with her “chicken killing” dog. The doubling of woman and dog reflects her position in the family in a very unsettling light, but in so doing makes the horror of that position finally visible. Meanwhile, in the story ‘Charles’, the doubling of a supposedly perfect child with his monstrous other shatters his parents’ illusions. Adult denial about the nature of children is a theme in several of the stories. My favourite use of doubling occurs in the chilling story ‘Of Course’ in which a family is confronted with some alarming new neighbours. But this new family is (of course), an uncanny mirror held up to the supposedly “normal” family, the flipside of the deadly, conventional, suburban lifestyle that the story’s protagonist is herself living. The neighbours are horrifying because they are not really so very different.

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Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

For God’s sake come to me quickly. She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment.

It is a razor blade of a novel: the blade is carefully hidden, but it is there inside the packaging, and, fifty years later, its capacity to draw blood remains unaltered, Sally Beauman, ‘Introduction’, p. vi.

Phillip Ashley has been raised by his wealthy, bachelor cousin Ambrose within the insular all-male world of an unnamed Cornish estate during an unspecified time in the past. Phillip adores his cousin and fully expects to inherit the estate in due course, but the smooth progress of this narrative is interrupted when Ambrose travels to Italy where he meets a distant cousin called Rachel and, much to Phillip’s alarm, suddenly marries her.  Phillip waits for the happy couple to return home as promised, but they never appear and Ambrose’s letters become increasingly disturbing – Rachel’s financial affairs are troubled, Ambrose suspects Rachel of something, Ambrose is ill.  A final desperate plea spurs Phillip to set out for Florence, but he arrives too late to find that Ambrose is dead, supposedly of a brain tumour.  Rachel’s villa has been shut up and the lady herself has disappeared.  Angry and grieving Phillip returns to Cornwall where a few weeks later Rachel arrives, claiming to want nothing more than to see the place that her husband loved so much.  At first, Phillip’s only intention is to punish Rachel and try to catch her out as a con-artist, perhaps even a black widow, but he quickly finds himself becoming obsessed with her.

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Happy Halloween

We are spending it quietly this year, just staying in and watching The Haunting of Hill House.  We haven’t even carved a Jack O’ Lantern (that’s one my sister did a couple of years ago), but Andy doesn’t think there’s much point unless you can display it on your porch, which is difficult to do when you live in a second floor flat.

Still, here are some Halloween links:

The most amazing pumpkin carvings you will ever see

From Final Girl, some awesome horror movie posters

And for a Halloween read, how about The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Jane Eyre (2011)

Having enjoyed Susanna White’s 2006 television adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I was interested to see what director Cary Fukunaga would bring to this new feature length version.

Spoiler alert – you might not want to read any further if you haven’t read the novel, or don’t want to know what this adaption does to Bronte’s text

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He’s Here! The Phantom of the Opera!

“The queer is the taboo-breaker, the monstrous, the uncanny.  Like the Phantom of the Opera, the queer dwells underground, below the operatic overtones of the dominant; frightening to look at, desiring, as it plays its own organ, producing its own music“, Sue Ellen Case, ‘Tracking the Vampire’ in Differences (1991) (p. 3).

The other day, an online conversation reminded me of my teenage love of musicals, in particular, my obsession, between the ages of 11 and 13, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.   My cooler friends were into Les Miserables, which even I had to acknowledge had a better score than Phantom, but I’ve always had a taste for glamour,  the gothic and, of course, the queer, and on all those fronts, Phantom won hands down.

My early love of Phantom is an example of how queer kids often cultivate interests that appear acceptable on the surface  of things, but privately rewrite their meaning to meet their own emotional and erotic needs.  No one objected to my love of Phantom because an interest in musicals is considered acceptable for white, middle-class teenage girls and because they assumed that I identified with Christine and her romance with Raoul.

In fact I identified passionately with the Phantom himself, the queer figure who lurks underground (and outside heteronormativity) and who exerts a mesmerising power over beautiful women, a figure who isn’t what he appears to be and who hides a terrible secret under his mask where he bears the mark of his ‘queerness’.   The Phantom/Angel of Music/Erik allows us to face our fears of being literally unmasked and seen for what we really are.  I even had a Phantom of the Opera mask and hat.

In attempting to drop a chandelier on Christine’s bland boyfriend, Raoul (see video below), the Phantom in his role as return of the repressed, acts out a queer rage against the dominant discourse.  From a feminist perspective, (and I’m sure there must be cultural critics out there who’ve talked about this), the Phantom can also be seen as an avatar of Christine herself, since the death of Raoul would save her from the fate of a dull marriage to a painfully dull man that awaits her and will undoubtedly end her singing career.  The Phantom may be rather creepy, but at least he wants to unleash Christine’s creativity and show her what she can achieve.  In gothic and horror fiction, the queer monster often allows women to dally with possibilities beyond heterosexual marriage, but only within the context of a parasitical or vampiric relationship that threatens to destroy them.  For the queer figure, the attempt to express him/herself through the woman ultimately it leaves him/her voiceless.  If you’re interested, Rhona J. Bernstein’s book, Attack of the Leading Ladies is very good on this special relationship between the monster and the ‘leading lady’.

When I was 13, the Phantom got dumped for Madonna, and when I was 14 I took up with the Rocky Horror Show, but that’s a whole other post.  For now, here’s the original video starring an unblinking Sarah Brightman as Christine, a rather stiff and awkward Steve Harley as the Phantom, and the most amazing mullet on the guy playing Raoul.  It now looks like a particularly bad Meatloaf video, but I loved it at the time.

M. R. James, Count Magnus and Other Stories

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and died in 1936.  He was a well-regarded scholar of medieval manuscripts and early Christianity at Cambridge University, but is now remembered for the ghost stories that he started writing in the 1890s as a hobby and an amusement for his friends and students. They are still considered to be among the most terrifying stories ever written.

My mother loves M. R James, so I’ve been aware of him for about as long as I can remember and have read his collected stories through at least three times. I recently acquired Penguin’s new 2 volume annotated edition of the stories and decided to give them a re-read.

Reading an M. R James ghost story goes something like this: a repressed, middle-aged male scholar/antiquarian goes delving around in something he probably shouldn’t. The story bumbles along pleasantly enough for quite a few pages, then something a bit creepy happens, then something a bit more creepy happens, and then oh. my. God. Aaaargh! Well, for me anyway.

James is very influenced by the great Victorian, Anglo-Irish writer of gothic and supernatural tales, Sheridan Le Fanu.  His stories have a similarly elegant, understated use of language and a gradual sense of slow-building terror.  But James exceeds even Le Fanu as an absolute master of ‘the uncanny‘, that is, the sense that something that should have remained repressed has come to light.  He draws on the Gothic tradition in basing his stories on an eruption of the past into the present in such a way as to defamiliarise the present.  He works a lot with defamiliarisation, the feeling that something’s a bit off with the world: a picture that seems to have a figure where it didn’t before, a room that looks smaller at night than it does by day, a figure in the distance that isn’t moving quite right:

There was something about its motion that made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.  It would stop, raise arms, bow itself towards the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the waters edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, p, 91.

His ghosts are material creatures; they threaten and sometimes manage to touch, grab, injure and even kill his protagonists.

Count Magnus and Other Stories contains fifteen of his most famous stories.  I would say that the best ones are ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘Number 13’, the famous ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad’, and ‘Casting the Runes’.   These stories are about as good as ghost stories have ever been, but almost all of the tales collected here contain moments of brilliance.  ‘Count Magnus’, a story which I thought one of his weaker ones, gave me a nightmare after reading it, and ‘The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral’ manages to make the simple line, ‘There is no kitchen cat’, pants-wettingly scary.

In terms of more serious critical issues, from a feminist perspective there is the lack of women in the stories.  In fact there are more women in the stories than I remembered, but it’s the way they’re positioned that makes them seem absent.  There are also class issues as many of the stories show a disdain for working-class people.  Some hint at very dark meanings; reading ‘Lost Hearts’ again, a tale about a man who harms children to service his selfish desires, this time I saw in it a repressed story about paedophilia.  It’s not that I think James intended that meaning, but the language of the text can produce it for us now.

James is not really spring or summer reading so I probably won’t get around to the second volume The Haunted Dolls House and Other Stories until the autumn now.