Theodora Goss, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (2017)

Image shows the cover of the novel which features the title in large white stylised letters on a black background surrounded by a design based on moments in the book, green plants, a knife, a key, a puma, a pen and in the bottom right corner, a woman with a pistol.

What if the “mad scientists” of Gothic literature had, in their various ways, produced a number of monstrous daughters who somehow find each other and start to investigate their mysterious origins? That’s the conceit behind Theodora Goss’s lovely fantasy novel, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

Characters appear from Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Frankenstein, ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, The Island of Doctor Moreau, Dracula and the Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s a book written by someone who obviously loved these tales, but who came to wonder, what about the women? What kind of story might emerge from those brief appearances, gaps and omissions?

After her mother dies, young Mary Jekyll find herself in dire financial straits. Suspecting that her father’s criminal friend, Edward Hyde, may still be alive, she enlists the help of Mr Sherlock Holmes and sets out to investigate, in the hope of claiming the outstanding reward for Hyde’s discovery.  But what she discovers is the existence of the troublesome teenager, Diana Hyde, who has grown up in a home for fallen women and who claims to be Mary’s half-sister.

As Mary delves into the mystery of Edward Hyde and his associates, she meets, and slowly fills her house with, a group of “monstrous girls” who have all been created through strange experiments: the poisonous Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau (a cat in the form of a woman), and the gentle giant, Justine Frankenstein. Each of the characters represents an aspect of how women are viewed under patriarchy and Goss has a lot of fun playing around with these tropes. With the slightly bemused support of Holmes and Watson, their investigations lead them to a confrontation with Frankenstein’s monster and the existrence of a secret society which seems to have had a hand in their creation.

This book is a delight for someone, like me, who grew up on these stories, but is very happy to see them being re-written from a feminist perspective. It’s also warm and comforting and has that “found family” feel which is so emotionally satisfying when done well.

Was there anything I didn’t like? Well, I have great fondness for Frankenstein’s monster,  and was a little saddened to find him represented so unsympathetically, but then again, it’s about time poor Justine got her own story.

Sherlock Holmes was also well done, if represented as rather nicer and more laid-back than Doyle’s creation, something Goss gets around by suggesting that that Holmes is the one in Watson’s stories. Dr Watson is perfect though.

I found the shifts in point of view a bit awkward and jarring at times, but overall thought that Goss did a good job of imitating the style of Victorian novels.

I’m looking forward to the sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, in which I’ve heard Mina Murray and Carmilla will be making appearances and there will be more cake.

Recommended if you’re looking for a cosy, rather than horrifying, Halloween read.

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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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

This Week’s Culture Round-up

From Eclectic Eccentric, a review of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 lurid, gothic, horror, The Monk

Andy reviews The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which is one of my favourite horror stories. The 1963 film adaptation is also excellent if you’re looking for something to watch on Halloween.

From io9, the first lesbian science fiction novel published in 1906.

From Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations a selection of bleak alien landscapes

From Tor.com a post about Joanna Russ’s final novel, On Strike Against God with some great feminist quotes.

Another from Tor.com, Did Ursula Le Guin change the course of SF? 

Margaret Atwood has just published a book of essays about science fiction. From The Guardian, Margaret Atwood: the road to ustopia and a review from Slate.

From The Zoe-Trope, a critique of the way the term ‘Mary Sue’ is being used to denigrate female characters, You can stuff your Mary Sue where the sun don’t shine

A video tribute to Blade Runner

From Bitch Flicks, The Madwoman’s Journey from the Attic into the Television – The Female Gothic Novel and its influence on Modern Horror Films.  Bitch Flicks is currently doing a series on women and horror film.

From Genevieve Valentine writing at Strange Horizons, a review of The Fall

Markgraf  from Bad Reputation went to see The Three Muskateers . I recommend reading his review before spending any money on this film.

From Cracked, Great movies from the villain’s point of view.  I think my personal favourite is Terrible Shepherds!

And another one from Cracked, The 6 most mind blowing things ever discovered in space

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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This week’s culture round-up

I’m still on my SF reading binge and in the last week I have finished Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, which I liked very much, am still working my way through Iain M. Banks’s complex The Algebraist and have just started Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Andy and I have started rewatching Season 4 of Babylon 5.  I haven’t watched any of the new series of Dr Who because I’m scared that it might upset me.  Anyway, here are some links to things I enjoyed on the internet:

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This week’s culture round-up

SF Mistressworks posts a review of an anthology of science fiction stories by women, Women of Womder: the Contemporary Years .  I’ve had this on my wishlist for a while and may now get around to buying it.

From Bad Reputation, Dr Who, Feminist Icon?   Ace was my feminist Dr Who companion. I thought she was amazing.

One for the Babylon 5 fans, Andy sums up her feelings about our Season 3 rewatch: Did I mention that my nose was on fire, that I have 15 wild badgers living in my trouser .  Apparently she enjoyed it.

From The Guardian, Connie Willis wins the 11th Hugo Award . I must read some of her stuff.

From Den of Geek, 10  things the movies can teach us about space travel

From Forbookssake, a post celebrating the birthday of Gothic writer, Mary Shelley, who has had a very significant presence in my life.

Here’s a new biography of creepy photographer Diane Arbus

Post-it wars in France.  Glad to see people are making creative use of their time in the office.  I’d suggest it as an activity to my colleagues … if we had any windows in our office to stick them on that is.