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.

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.

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, this is the story of Sabella, a vampire stricken with a guilty conscience about all 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 this book.  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.