Theodora Goss, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018) #20BooksOfSummer

I really enjoyed The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, so I was looking forward to reading the sequel. Overall, it did not disappoint.

Our heroines, the gang of monstrous “daughters” from the first novel, also known as the Athena Club, continue their investigations into the nefarious activities of certain rogue members of the Societe des Alchemistes. Mary, Beatrice, Cat, Diana and Justine find themselves in peril again as they travel across Europe to try and rescue Lucinda Van Helsing who has been infected with a strange disease.  Oh, and they have to prevent Van Helsing and Dr Seward from taking over the Societe.

That’s basically the plot which unfolds slowly over 700 pages while our heroines eat a lot cake and make a lot of new friends, including Irene Adler, Mina Murray, Laura and Carmilla, not to mention Count Dracula himself. They also have to face some old foes, some of whom could be considered family, before finally confronting the President of the Societe, the mysterious Ayesha.

If, like me, you grew up reading the Victorian Gothic, this series is especially enjoyable. It’s like returning to a familiar world, but this time with women taking centre stage. It was great to meet Irene Adler and Mina Murray again and I thought they were very well done. It was also nice to see that things are working out for Laura and Carmilla.

If I have any criticism. I thought it was a bit too long and rambly and that there were too many characters. The final third dragged a bit, especially with Bea and Cat’s story. I felt that the author wanted to give all the main characters equal attention, but maybe that wasn’t entirely necessary.

At a whopping great 708 pages, this was not the best choice for a time-limited reading challenge, but I really liked it and will read the final book in the trilogy.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman is the kind of huge, cosy, fun fantasy novel you can just sink into. Perfect for curling up with on a cold rainy afternoon with a nice cup of tea.

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

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 Lottery & Other Stories I’ve been trying to articulate the effect this collection 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”, the deeply unsettling feeling that something which should have remained secret and hidden has come to light. Like seeing yourself 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 an 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:

This Week’s Culture Round-up

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.

All in all, I was impressed, especially with the way Fukunaga and writer Moira Buffini stay close to the novel, but ruthlessly strip the story down to its bare bones, giving emphasis to some aspects of the novel that other adaptations tend to avoid.   Gone are the stories of Bessie and Miss Temple.  Gone, too, are most of Bertha’s appearances, Grace Poole, and much of Jane and Rochester’s engagement.   More daringly, the film refuses to represent the burning of Thornfield Hall and Bertha’s final leap to her death, a melodramatic staple scene in most Jane Eyre adaptations.   Gone is “Reader, I married him” and any attempt to represent Jane and Rochester’s life together after she decides to return to him.   I didn’t like all the cuts, but I thought it was quite brave and allowed other aspects of the text to come forth.

In the 2006 adaptation, Ruth Wilson played Jane as a steely, straight-talking, and passionate young woman.  Mia Wasikowska’s Jane is a young woman who suppresses her anger beneath a pale, cold and standoffish exterior.  Michael Fassbinder gave us what I would say is the best Rochester since Orson Welles.  Although Rochester works on the page, he’s fiendishly difficult to represent sympathetically on screen, but Fassbinder manages to convey the intense loneliness and despair that underlies all his bluster and libertinism.  Judy Dench is on autopilot as Mrs Fairfax, but she’s always watchable.  It was nice to see little Adele get more screen time and played by an actress of around the right age.  Jamie Bell is excellent as St John Rivers, making him rather more human than he comes across in the novel.

The film emphasises the violence of Jane’s childhood, the scene at the beginning in which John Reed hits her with the book is a genuine shock.  It also keeps much of the novel’s gothic atmosphere – we jumped several times.  I was pleased by the inclusion of Jane’s feminist speech about the lack of opportunities for women.   Perhaps more daringly, it retains the uncomfortable moment when Rochester sort of threatens to rape Jane.  The threat is stronger in the novel, but it’s suggested here too.   It also represents the telepathic connection between Rochester and Jane without it appearing ridiculous.

I was disappointed by the lack of Bertha and especially regretted the loss of the veil ripping scene.  I missed the burning of Thornfield too and was annoyed to see that Rochester had lost his sight, but retained both his hands at the end, the director apparently deciding that Bronte is a little too hard on him.  My partner said that the loss of the hand would be “too much”, to which I replied, “But representing the telepathy isn’t too much?”, and so the argument continued.   I found the ending a bit abrupt too, stopping just as they get back together. After such a harrowing tale, I want more of an emotional pay-off, damn it!

The screenplay also removes the revelation that the Rivers siblings are actually Jane’s cousins.  This is sensible, insofar as it saves them having to represent a ridiculous coincidence, but removing the relationship makes it seem like Jane is trying to buy a family when she offers to share her inheritance with them, and, I have to say, rather mercenary of them to accept it!  It’s a part of the novel that clunks and changing it only makes it clunk louder here.

Still, this stripped down gothic Jane Eyre looks gorgeous, is very well directed and I think will stand as one of the best adaptations for some time.

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

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 nine and thirdteen, 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 my own 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 boring man that awaits her and will undoubtedly end her singing career.  The Phantom may be 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 monstrous 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 thirdteen, the Phantom got dumped for Madonna, and when I was fourteen 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 (1904)

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!

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 ghost stories as have ever been written, 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.

Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger (2009)

Dr Faraday, a lonely, unmarried, middle-aged, country GP becomes involved with the family up at crumbling Hundreds Hall where his mother once worked as a servant. This house impressed him deeply when he was a little boy, but since then the family has diminished into genteel poverty – the household now consisting of flighty Mrs Ayres, her plain, spinster daughter, Caroline, her injured war veteran son, Roddy (who has had some kind of nervous breakdown in the recent past) and a couple of servants.  As Faraday allows himself to become emotionally entangled with this family, mysterious and increasingly terrifying occurrences begin to plague their lives at Hundreds Hall.

I got the impression that lesbian readers were divided by The Little Stranger into ‘loved it’ and ‘indifferent to it’ camps.  This is not very surprising since it’s the first of Waters’s novels not to feature a lesbian relationship, or a self-identified lesbian character.  The style of writing builds on Affinity and The Night Watch, becoming even more understated, cool and precise, and even more of a slow-burn than those novels.  So if you prefer the fast-paced romping style of Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, The Little Stranger may disappoint.

I absolutely loved it though, reading most of it during one train journey to Manchester and finishing it on the way back.  But my enjoyment may have less to do with loyalty to Waters than the fact that I love the kind of Gothic writing she draws on in this novel, the ‘really about what haunts society’ tradition of ghost stories.  The cool, but terrifying, ghost stories of M.R. James are clearly an influence here, as well as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. I don’t know if she’s read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, but that feels like an American cousin of The Little Stranger.

The ghost haunting The Little Stranger is the ghost of class resentment, the trauma of war and the post-war shift in the position of women.  You may find the strange, ambiguous (as well as very sad) ending frustrating if you like things tied up, but I enjoy that sort of thing, and it goes with the territory in the kind of tradition Waters is writing in.

Also, it’s the first Sarah Waters novel that I could allow my mother to read.

Hilary Mantel wrote a very good review in the Guardian.

Tanith Lee, Sabella, or The Bloodstone (1980)

In the pink hills of Novo Mars, while the wolves howled, Sabella lay in the arms of men.  And the transparent crystal at her throat turned scarlet as she took their blood.

They really, really should have filmed this book around 1983 – I can just see it, everyone with huge eighties hair and reflective sunglasses, acting in front of painted backdrops representing the desert, and of course, a David Bowie soundtrack.  It would have been awesome.

Set on a future Mars-like planet colonised by humans, Sabella, or The Bloodstone is the story of a vampire stricken with a guilty conscience about the strapping young men she despatched during her teens and much existential angst concerning her vampire nature.  Sabella eschews the company of humans and feeds on animals. Then she meets a man called Sand who pursues her until she gives in to temptation and allows him into her bed, with the inevitable conclusion.  But shoving his body in the incinerator doesn’t solve her problems because his dangerous, charismatic brother, Jace, is on her track and Sabella is in for a reckoning when he catches up with her.

I wish I’d read this book when I was 19 because I would have loved it then.  I’m a little too old for Sabella and her bloodstone now, but I still found it an enjoyable science fiction vampire tale, with the superior quality of writing that you can expect from Tanith Lee.  I liked the twist towards the end which pulls it above your standard vampire tale.

You could probably say a lot about Sabella from feminist and psychoanalytic perspectives – dead mothers, doubles, sex equated with death, womb imagery, eroticised relations of domination and submission are all featured –but I’m not going to try and talk about any of that.

It’s vampires on Mars; it’s fun.  Give it a go if you liked Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, or C.L Moore’s ‘Shambleau’

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1817)

Northanger Abbey is the Austen novel that I’ve read least over the years.  This is odd, considering how much I love the late eighteenth-century gothic that it satirizes so well.  Austen started writing the book in 1898 when she was 23 and while it’s not as sophisticated or well-written as her later works, this is Austen at her liveliest – witty, sarcastic and impudent.

Seventeen year-old Catherine Morland sets out on her career as a heroine with a trip to Bath, where she has to negotiate her way through the perils of insincere friends, boorish admirers and rainy days which foil her plans to take a walk with Henry Tilney, the man she really likes.  In the meantime, she reads a lot of gothic novels and starts to get a little confused about the distinction between fiction and reality.  Invited by Henry’s bad-tempered father to stay at Northanger Abbey, Catherine begins to wonder what really happened to Henry’s mother who seems to have died mysteriously … Much misunderstanding and embarrassment follows before our hero and heroine can be brought together.

The ending is rushed and feels contrived, and the love relationship between Henry and Catherine is not tremendously believable, but Northanger Abbey is more about fiction and reading than it is about romance.

Reading the novel again, I think its critique of the female gothic actually affirms the importance of that genre for women of the period. Gilbert and Gubar in their book The Madwoman in the Attic point out that, although Catherine over-reads her situation, she isn’t entirely wrong.  General Tilney is a villain and Mrs Tilney has been mistreated and “killed”.  And, since Catherine is going to be the next Mrs Tilney, she really does need to find out what happened to the last one.  The female gothic, which Jane Austen is poking fun at in this novel (but obviously loved too), provided a space for women to express and explore jusifiable anxieties about patriarchy.  Perhaps Catherine’s real problem is that she takes the gothic too literally and, in so doing, doesn’t appreciate the metaphorical warnings it contains.  I’m not sure I’d want to be shut up in a vicarage with Mr Henry-uses-humour-as-a-defence-mechanism-Tilney for the rest of my life!

Henry James, Selected Tales (1879-1908)

It took me TWO YEARS to finish the Selected Tales of Henry James.  All went fairly well at first, but at some point around two thirds of the way through, my bookmark got stuck.  No matter how much I read, it never seemed to move any further … until, one day, it was over.

Henry James is divisive: people seem to either love or hate him. His style is notoriously convoluted and wordy, and on the surface his stories often appear to be about nothing in particular – things that never happened, relationships that didn’t transpire and secrets that are never revealed. Despite these issues and the length of time it took me to read this book, I still place myself more on the love end of the continuum.  I’ve also read The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Turn of the Screw and some of this other ‘ghost’ stories.

The tales in this collection follow a chronological order from 1879 – 1908 and they do get more opaque as they go, but read together I think they give you a better sense of what Henry James is all about.  “Nothing” happens in his stories because he’s mainly concerned with psychological states, with the ways in which our lives can be dominated by that which never happened, that which remains secret, and by ideas, hopes and dreams rather than reality.  In ‘The Lesson of the Master’, for instance, a young writer allows his life to be ruled by the hope that he will learn something important from an older writer, only to learn a very different lesson to the one he had hoped for.  ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ has a similar theme. In ‘The Best in the Jungle’, a man’s entire life is thwarted by his feeling that one day ‘something’ important is going to happen, so he lives in a perpetual state of anticipation and loses everything as a result.

James is very interested in the dangers of interpretation, particularly of interpreting signs wrongly. In ‘Daisy Miller’ a young woman dies because the people around her read her behaviour wrongly; she does nothing, but that doesn’t matter because it’s interpretation that matters in James’s world. The same theme appears in the late story ‘Julia Bride’, in which another young woman’s life path is decided by the way people read her behaviour and speak about what they think they see. James is also very aware of the sexual double-standard in his stories about women.

It is not only action that has far-reaching consequences in James; it is thought and speech.  In ‘The Pupil’, a tutor plays with the feelings of his young pupil without any real thought as to the effect he may be having on the boy, until it is too late. The boy, meanwhile, has committed two classic Jamesian errors: reading too much into the signs and placing all his hope in one person who isn’t really what he seems. James is just as interested in the consequences of non-action – how what we don’t do affects other people.  What guilt does the narrator of Daisy Miller bear for just watching events unfold and not standing up for her when he could?  Is John Marcher responsible for the death of May Bertram, the woman who loved him all the years while he waited for “something” to happen?

It is not surprising that so many of the tales are uncanny psychological ‘ghost’ stories since James is so interested in the ways in which the repressed makes itself felt in our lives as a kind of ‘haunting’.  The late story, ‘The Jolly Corner’, brings these themes together in a man who is haunted by the ghost of his alternative life, the life he might have lived had he made different choices. He becomes obsessed with this ‘ghost’ and desperate to meet it, but when he does, the alien identity he encounters horrifies him and he finally begins to appreciate his life for what it is and live in the present.

The introduction by John Lyon is annoying – almost as convoluted in style as James and rather “harrumph harrumph, how dare these so-called queer theorists read homosexual meaning into these stories, harrumph.”  It’s actually pretty hard not to read homosexual meaning into James when his stories are so full of the unsayable, of the consequences of living with secrets, and of course, of relationships between men. I’m firmly on Eve Sedgwick’s side in thinking that James has something particularly interesting to say about ‘the closet’.

Worth reading if you’re interested in James, late nineteenth-century literature, or if you want to see what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was talking about in Epistemology of the Closet.

The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease (2008)

First, some definitions of the uncanny:

‘if we have a sense of the uncanny, it is because the barriers between the known and the unknown are teetering on the brink of collapse,’ David Punter.

‘The uncanny has to do with a sense of a secret encounter: it is perhaps inseparable from an apprehension, however fleeting, of something that should have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’, Nicholas Royle.

‘It may be that the uncanny [‘the unhomely’] is something familiar [‘homely,’ ‘homey’] that has been repressed and then reappears, and that everything uncanny satisfies this condition […] Our conclusion could then be stated as follows: the uncanny element we know from experience arises either when repressed childhood complexes are revived by some impression, or when some primitive beliefs that have been surmounted appear to be once again confirmed,’ Sigmund Freud.

Taking Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ as a starting point, the editors of this new anthology challenged 14 leading authors to write new interpretations of what the uncanny might mean today. I love Freud’s essay and the Hoffman short story, ‘The Sandman’, upon which it is based, and I am very interested in the uncanny as a concept, so I was quite excited about this book.

There’s no ‘new uncanny here’ – it’s the same old uncanny, but updated to contemporary settings.  I don’t mind that and I was interested to note that several of the stories (Mathew Holness, Nicholas Royle, Christopher Priest, Alison Macleod) took as their theme the abuse of women and children, suggesting just how much this problem has become a repressed horror at the centre of our culture.  Unsurprisingly, fears about technology featured quite highly.  Jane Rogers took on an airport foot massager, Adam Marek makes Tamagothci’s seem pretty alarming and Frank Cottrell Boyce succeeded in putting me off the idea of playing SIMs.  Meanwhile, A. S Byatt fell back on that old staple of the uncanny – the doll.

I was a little disappointed to find that a lot of these stories felt a bit forced (trying too hard to be uncanny), while other writers seemed to be doing ‘the uncanny by numbers’ and weren’t trying that hard (Ramsey Campbell).  The worst story was Ian Duhig’s which I found completely unreadable and the last story by Etgar Keret wasn’t in the slightest bit uncanny.

In my opinion, there are three superb stories in this anthology and they are great because the writers really grasped a sense of the uncanny:

Sara Maitland’s ‘Seeing Double’. This story doesn’t feel new at all. It feels as old as the fears it raises. I think Hoffman would be impressed.

Matthew Holness’s ‘Possum’ is a story so terrifying you really start to wonder about the mind of the writer.  Puppets are always nasty, but this puppet is the worst.

Christopher Priest’s ‘The Sorting Out’ is a brilliant ictionfal description of what it feels like to be emotionally abused and stalked.

Overall this is quite an entertaining read, but if you really want to experience the uncanny, it doesn’t come near Nicholas Royle’s anthology Narrow Houses, which ostensibly deals with superstition, but contains some of the most uncanny stories I have ever read.

The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease

Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas (1865)

This is Victorian Gothic/Sensation Fiction at its best.  I’m a fan of Sheridan Le Fanu. I think that In a Glass Darkly is one of the best collections of supernatural fiction ever written and the “lesbian” vampire story ‘Carmilla’ is a masterpiece of the uncanny.  This is a writer who really knows how to play on our fears and he was a big influence on one of my other favourite writers of the supernatural, M.R. James.

Uncle Silas takes up the female gothic tradition of Ann Radcliffe and builds the tension to almost unbearable levels.  There were honestly times when I felt I might not be able to continue reading this book because it was making me feel sick with anxiety.  It is the story of Maud, your classic innocent, gothic heroine.  She’s an heiress and has been brought up in almost complete isolation, which is never a good combination.  Maud’s father dies and leaves a very strange will in which he gives his sinister brother Silas guardianship over our trembling heroine.  Someone was once murdered in Silas’s house and he wants to clear his brother’s reputation by trusting him with his daughter until she comes of age in a few years time.  Hmmm.  He doesn’t seem to consider the potential danger of dangling an heiress in front of his spendthrift opium-addicted brother if Silas does turn out to be a murderer after all, but incompetent fathers are a feature of the nineteenth-century gothic, which often takes the failings of patriarchy as a starting point.  Poor Maud is packed off to live with Silas in his even more isolated, dilapidated housem, with only a garrulous servant for company.  Here she has to figure out if the conspiracy she suspects is real or if she’s imagining the threat.

One of the things that impressed me about this novel (and there is much) is Le Fanu’s apparent awareness of the socially constructed aspects of gender.  Women like Maud are not born; they are created.  He makes this apparent when we are introduced to Silas’s “hoyden” of a daughter, Milly, who, motherless and wild, has not been through the feminizing process.  I loved Milly with her “swaggering walk,” her loud voice, saucy but honest talk and physical exuberance.  Milly is a representation of what middle-class woman were not allowed to be and, of course, Maud immediately sets about “civilising” her (lengthening her dresses and telling her to keep her mouth shut in the company of men).

For a male writer, Le Fanu did a good job of constructing a “feminine” subjectivity for Maud as she develops from her victim role and works out how to use the powers available to her, namely, passive resistance, deceit and manipulation.  And you really can’t blame her under the circumstances.

There’s plenty of gender-inversion in the book as whole.  Silas is strangely effeminate, but the most frightening and grotesque figure is the malevolent, drunken French governess Madame De La Rougierre:

On a sudden, on the grass before me, stood an odd figure – a very tall woman in grey draperies, nearly white under the moon, curtseying extraordinarily low, and rather fantastically.

I stared in something like horror upon the large and rather hollow features which I did not know, smiling very unpleasantly on me; and the moment it was plain that I saw her, the grey woman began gobbling and cackling shrilly – I could not distinctly hear what through the window – and gesticulating oddly with her long hands and arms.

Although the book is full of these kinds of threatening, uncanny moments, in fact, until about the last quarter, it’s all suspense.  Nothing much happens and you don’t know whether or not there really is a conspiracy against Maud, but the ending, when it comes, does not disappoint; it’s quite shockingly violent and gruesome for a Victorian novel.

A short post about George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil (1859)

This is the great realist, George Eliot’s, one and only attempt at Gothic fantasy/Sensation Fiction.  It is the story of a young man named Latimer who develops clairvoyant abilities and becomes sexually infatuated with his brother’s fiancée, Bertha, because she is the only person whose mind he cannot read.  The older brother conveniently dies and Latimer marries Bertha, only to find that when her mind is finally revealed to him (the veil lifted): “I saw myself in Bertha’s thought […] a miserable ghost seer, surrounded by phantoms in the noon-day, trembling under a breeze when the leaves were still, without appetite for the common objects of human desire, but pining after moonbeams’ “(32). Unsurprisingly, Bertha and Latimer becomes increasingly estranged and it all builds towards a very melodramatic ending.

In recent years this novella has attracted a lot of attention, especially from feminist literary critics, who argue that it has great significance in Eliot’s canon. Gilbert and Gubar give it an entire chapter in The Madwoman in the Attic.  I’m afraid I don’t buy that argument and I think there was a good reason why she didn’t generally write this kind of fiction – she just wasn’t that good at it. The story has no tension, which is an essential component of gothic and sensation fiction — and the selfish, whining Latimer is so repellent that you really hope Bertha will get away with poisoning him before the end. I’m with Terry Eagleton when he exclaims “If only we could hear Bertha’s side of the story”.   I think the story in an interesting curiosity and tells us something about Eliot’s lesser known interests in mesmerism, phrenology, clairvoyance and revivication, as well as the gothic and fairy stories.  It also contains interesting nineteenth-century anxieties about gender — are men being emasculated by a wealthy consumer society? Are women becoming harder and more competitive?  In some ways, Bertha seems like a less well-developed model for that other dangerous blonde with snake-like coils of hair — Rosamund Vincey in Middlemarch.

Maybe I’m not getting something, but I just don’t see the deep meaning in this story that some critics have ascribed to it; to me, it seems all surface, which is fine such as it is, but Middlemarch, or The Mill on the Floss, it is not.