Novella a Day in May #13

Such Small Hands – Andres Barba (trans. Lisa Dillman 2017) 101 pages

Well, this was super creepy. Institutionalised children *shudder*

Seven year old Marina is in a car accident.

“’Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma.’ Lips pronounce them without stopping. Quick, dry words. They come in thousands of different, unpredictable ways, sometimes unbidden. Suddenly they just fall, as if onto a field. Marina’s learned to say them without sadness, like a name recited for strangers, like my name is Marina and I’m seven years old. ‘My father died instantly, my mother is in the hospital.’”

After her mother dies, Marina is sent to an orphanage, taking a doll given to her by the psychologist, which she has also called Marina. The other girls are both mesmerised and wary of Marina.

“Marina shrank and we grew. She stood alone, with her doll, by the statue of Saint Anne, watching us. Or was it the doll who was watching? We didn’t know who the doll really was. Because sometimes she looked like Marina, and she, too, seemed to have a hungry heart, and clenched fists close to her body, and she, too, was silent even when invited to join in; and she nodded her head back and forth, something we’d never seen a doll do before.  And she seemed persecuted and excluded, too.”

Neither Marina or the girls understand the relationships they forge. There is fear and eroticism mixed in with tentative gestures towards friendship. Marina’s scar from the accident is a source of wonder.

“‘You can’t feel it?’

‘No. Well, only a little.’

Desire passed through the girl, too. Like stagnant water that suddenly begins to drain, imperceptibly.

And devotion mixed in with the desire.

‘Do you want to touch it?’

‘Yes.’

But the girl didn’t react right away.”

Barba gradually builds the tension and develops the girls’ games into something deeply disturbing and sinister, but wholly believable (there is an afterword which explains the real-life inspiration for the story). This tale will haunt me for a long time.

Advertisements

Novella a Day in May #6

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson (1962, 146 pages)

Well, this was a deeply creepy read. Shirley Jackson’s final novel tells the story of eighteen year-old Merricat, living with her older sister  Constance and Uncle Julian in self-imposed isolation, ever since Constance was found not guilty of murdering the rest of the family with arsenic. The townspeople don’t trust the verdict, and the family are shunned. Merricat’s days are filled with ritual, both domestic and talismanic of her own devising, with a threat of violence never far away [skip the first sentence if cruelty to animals is a trigger]:

“I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to. I was on the way back to the house when I found a very bad omen, one of the worst. My book nailed to a tree in the pine woods had fallen down. I decided that the nail had rusted away and the book – it was a little notebook of our father’s, where he used to record the names of people who owed him money, and people who ought, he thought, to do favours for him – was useless now as protection. I had wrapped it very thoroughly in heavy brown paper before nailing it to the tree, but the nail had rusted and it had fallen, I thought I had better destroy it, in case it was now actively bad, and bring something else out to the tree, perhaps a scarf of our mothers, or a glove. It was really too late, although I did not know it then; he was already on his way to the house.”

‘He’ is Cousin Charles, whose arrival disturbs the fragile balance within the house. Constance and Merricat have a close relationship, but not a healthy one.  They are both somewhat infantilised, and are co-dependent in complex ways. Charles is interested in getting Constance out and about, and his hands on the family money. Jackson superbly racks up the tension without ever resorting to clichés. There are also moments of levity, mainly around Uncle Julian’s eccentricities and non-sequiturs.

“ ‘Jonas is asleep in the lettuce,’ I said.

‘There is nothing I like more than cat fur in my salad,’ Constance said amiably.

‘It is time I had a box,’ Uncle Julian announced. He sat back and looked angrily at his papers. ‘They must all be put in a box this very minute. Constance?’

‘He is dishonest. His father was dishonest. Both my brothers were dishonest. If he tries to take my papers you must stop him; I cannot permit tampering with my papers and I will not tolerate intrusion. You must tell him this Constance. He is a bastard.’

‘Uncle Julian –‘

‘In a purely metaphorical sense, I assure you. Both my brothers married women of very strong will. That is merely a word used – among men my dear; I apologize for submitting you to such a word – to categorise an undesirable fellow.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a powerful read and an astonishing one. With its atmosphere of unspoken threat and insidious menace, all set within a ritualised domesticity, it is deeply disturbing. Undoubtedly a gothic masterpiece.

Novella a Day in May #2

Devil by the Sea – Nina Bawden (1976, 192 pages)

When I was a child I loved Nina Bawden’s books, particularly The Peppermint Pig and Carrie’s War, which a read and re-read. For some reason though, I never picked up her novels for adults. Ali has been championing her writing over on her blog Heavenali, and this prompted me to dig Devil by the Sea out of the Virago TBR (yes, the TBR is so humungous now there are TBR sub-piles) and give it a read.

I’m happy to say that Bawden is just as wonderful writing for adults as she is for children. This creepy, tightly plotted tale is a compulsive read with plenty to say about human relationships – particularly those between adults and children – and the nature of feeling Other. It begins:

“The first time the children saw the Devil, he was sitting next to them in the second row of deckchairs in the bandstand. He was biting his nails.”

The children are Hilary and Peregrine. They are not happy, carefree children; Bawden would never be that patronising in her portrayal of young people. Instead, Hilary is jealous and angry, and can be petty. Peregrine is religious and anxious. They live in a seaside town all year round and it is holiday season. Their half-sister is having an affair with a vain married man who does not love her. Their father and step-mother are under-involved in the children’s lives. Their Auntie beachcombs and keeps the rotting fish she finds. Into all this comes a man they believe is the devil.

“The man turned and looked at them. A shadow crossed his face: like an animal, he seemed to shrink and cringe before the mockery Hilary had made of him […] He continued to watch her with a steady, careful stare. She fumbled in the pocket of her cotton dress. Her voice croaked with embarrassment.

‘Would you like a toffee?’

The man looked beyond her to Peregrine. Briefly, their eyes met. Peregrine could not look away, he was transfixed. The man’s eyes were dark and dull, dead eyes without any shine in them. They reflected nothing.”

A child with the unfortunate moniker of Poppet goes missing, and Hilary saw the man lead her away.

“Poppet’s picture was in the middle of the front page and Hilary looked at it with interest….She read the first few lines beneath the picture and a dark veil came down over her eyes. Her heart beat wildly in her throat. Something cold and evil menaced her from the shadowed corners and for a while she crouched quite still, as if afraid to wake a sleeping beast.”

The fact that this evidence is not easily voiced for the situation resolved is due to the misunderstanding and myth-making of children; the obliviousness and myopia of adults; the fear of everyone.

Despite being a gothic tale in many ways, Devil by the Sea is wholly believable. This is not least because Bawden is not interested in making her characters likable, but rather real, complex, flawed and fascinating. It is creepy and captivating and deeply unsettling. On the strength of this, I will definitely be reading more of Bawden’s adult fiction, not least because I was lucky enough to win The Birds on the Trees in Ali’s giveaway last year 🙂

“Without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” (George Steiner)

Last week I looked at a Nordic mystery as part of Women in Translation month, and this week I thought I’d make it the central theme – head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth. The need for Women in Translation month was brought home to me when I went to my TBR shelves thinking “No problem! I have loads of translated literature waiting to be read.” Well, yes, I do, but looking at the titles I suddenly realised it was very much dominated by male writers.

tumblr_inline_mozjjfa9bR1qz4rgp

I’m glad you asked, Mads. Firstly, The Vegetarian by Korean writer Han Kang (2007, tr. Deborah Smith 2015) and one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit. You probably don’t need me to tell you how good The Vegetarian is; it was the glowing reviews and enthusiasm from bloggers that led me to pick up this novel in the first place. The hype was well deserved – The Vegetarian is an unsettling, brutal and beautifully written tale which has stayed with me long after I finished it.

It is the story of Yeong-hye, the titular herbivore, told from three points of view: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister, over the course of a few years, from the point she starts refusing to eat meat. Her husband can’t believe that his wife – whose main appeal was that she impinges on his life in no way whatsoever – would do something so antisocial.

“As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.”

Yeong-hye’s behaviour is not rooted in any of these ‘reasonable grounds’ but in a deep disturbance at thought of eating meat, something which is not easy to cope with or explain:

“Something is lodged in my solar plexus. I don’t know what it might be. It’s lodged there permanently these days. Even though I stopped wearing a bra, I can feel this lump all the time. No matter how deeply I inhale, it doesn’t go away. Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of all the animals I ate are lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives stick stubbornly to my insides.”

Yeong-hye’s behaviour exposes the fractures in her family: the tensions, hidden desires, and loyalties which on one occasion spills over into physical violence. She can’t be what her husband wants her to be. Subject to her brother-in-law’s sexual fetishes, she cannot answer all of his needs either. Nor can she start eating to please her sister who sees her wasting away. Her deterioration – mental and physical – is painful but her determination is relentless.

“Her voice had no weight to it, like feathers. It was neither gloomy nor absent minded, as might be expected of someone who was ill. But it wasn’t bright or light-hearted either. It was the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between states of being.”

The Vegetarian is a short novel, 183 pages in my edition, but it punches far above its weight. Kang’s voice is strong and unique, her writing all the more dramatic for its concise understatement, and she refuses to offer any easy answers. Disturbing and brilliant.

Images from here and here

Secondly, a classic of Spanish literature, Nada by Carmen Laforet (1945 tr. Edith Grossman 2007). Andrea, a young student, leaves her rural home to attend university and moves in her with grandmother, aunt, two uncles, her uncle’s wife, a green-toothed maid and a dog. Although filled with youthful hope for opportunities and change, the atmosphere is unsettling from the start:

“We rode down Calle Aribau, where my relatives lived, its plane trees full of dense green that October, and its silence vivid with the respiration of a thousand souls behind darkened balconies.”

Once inside the house, things worsen. The house is cluttered, dirty, filled with layers of past glories.

“That bathroom seemed like a witches house, the stained walls had traces of hook-shaped hands, of screams of despair. Everywhere the scaling walls opened their toothless mouths oozing dampness. Over the mirror, because it didn’t fit anywhere else, they’d hung a macabre still-life of pale bream and onions against a black background. Madness smiled from the bent taps.”

The Spanish Civil War – over six years previously – is mentioned in passing but never dwelt upon, though there is the sense that this is a family and a city, possibly a nation, dealing with the aftershocks of trauma. The family are entirely dysfunctional, locked in abusive, sado-masochistic, manipulative relationships to a greater or lesser extent. Andrea’s uncle Juan savagely beats his wife Gloria; her aunt Angustias tries to control Andrea through a  mix of overbearing affection and oppressive boundary-setting; her uncle Roman plays  cat-and-mouse with just about everyone he encounters. Andrea’s friend Ena offers a possibility of escape:

“Ena never resembled on weekdays the rash girl, almost childish in her high spirits, that she turned into on Sundays. As for me – and I came from the countryside – she made me see a new meaning in nature that I’d never thought of before. She made me understand the pulsing of damp mud heavy with vital juices, the mysterious emotion of buds that were still closed, the melancholy charm of algae listless on the sand, the potency, the ardour, the splendid appeal of the sea.”

Nada is a gothic tale without a doubt, but never quite spills over into the camp that gothic often skirts along. The novel had to pass through Franco’s censors, and while its not overtly a political tale, I think the Gothicism helps disguise the fact that it is a tale of a society in shock; of resistance to oppression; of survival and escape.

“The memory of nights on Calle de Aribau comes to me now. Those nights that ran like a black river beneath the bridges of the days, nights when stagnant odours gave off the breath of ghosts.”

To end, an example of gothic that doesn’t skirt around camp but rather dives straight in – quite the maddest film I’ve ever seen:

“Change is inevitable – except from a vending machine.” (Robert C. Gallagher)

Dear reader, it’s been so long.  Let’s just say working pretty much full-time while studying for my Masters as a full time student basically leaves time for oooh, nothing else at all. My brain is close to exploding with all I’m trying to cram into it. Put it this way: I’ve lost all capacity for nouns.  I can’t remember the name of anyone or anything.  Apparently this is a sign of dementia starting.  I’m trying to be positive and think it’s just a sign of my impending breakdown.

Anyhoo, it’s March now, and so I’ve decided that Spring has officially sprung.  I’m sick of winter, and although it’s cold and grey in old London town today, we’ve had at least 3 days where it’s been sunny & bright & I’ve had to remove my jacket as I’m too warm. There are daffodils, so it’s Spring, people!  Annoyingly, with this seasonal transformation comes exhortations from women’s magazines to transform your body into something called ‘bikini-ready’ or similar. Ugh. As a bibliophile I thought rather than attempting transformation, I would  read about instead.  Read about it seated in my favourite chair eating chocolate/cheese/chocolate topped with cheese while refusing to wear a bikini.

Firstly, possibly the most famous transformation story of all, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This is such a well-known story that I won’t bother outlining the plot.  Just in case you need a reminder though, here’s a visual summary from the 1931 film:

Dr Jekyll observes:

“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both” 

His potion suppresses his duality and lets forth the base Mr Hyde:

“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him.”

The novella is not the most accomplished piece of writing but there are some well crafted passages:

“It was a fine, clear, January day, wet under foot where the frost had melted, but cloudless overhead; and the Regent’s Park was full of winter chirrupings and sweet with spring odours. I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.” 

When originally published, this Victorian novella no doubt spoke to anxiety about sexual drives which may have faded somewhat, but the metaphor still lends itself to inner turmoil and guilt, when Hyde is figured as “the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace”; or the personality change associated with drug/alcohol addiction, as Hyde has “the body of a self-destroyer”; or various dissociative/psychotic psychological disorders.  I think what makes this story so famous and enduring is that it captures an anxiety about who we are, and of what we are capable.  The terror of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is not in Hyde himself, but in the unsettling notion that Hyde is not strange, but in fact common to us all.

Secondly, a chance for me to indulge my on-going obsession with Angela Carter, and discuss ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ from The Bloody Chamber.  This collection of stories saw Carter reworking fairytales; an obvious choice for this post as the genre is filled with transformations – beasts into princes, wolves into grandmothers, wicked step-mothers into witches.  In ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ narrator’s father stakes her in a game of cards, only to lose.

“I watched with the furious cynicism peculiar to women whom circumstances force mutely to witness folly, while my father, fired in his desperation by more and yet more draughts of the firewater they call ‘grappa’, rids himself of the last scraps of my inheritance. When we left Russia, we owned black earth, blue forest with bear and wild boar, serfs, cornfields, farmyards, my beloved horses, white nights of cool summer, the fireworks of the northern lights. What a burden all those possessions must have been to him, because he laughs as if with glee as he beggars himself; he is in such a passion to donate all to The Beast.”

The Beast is the name given to the Lord of the manor, a man who smells of:

“potent a reek of purplish civet at such close quarters in so small a room. He must bathe himself in scent, soak his shirts and underlinen in it; what can he smell of, that needs so much camouflage?”

The narrator moves into his lair:

“A profound sense of strangeness slowly began to possess me. I knew my two companions were not, in any way, as other men, the simian retainer and the master for whom he spoke, the one with clawed fore-paws who was in a plot with the witches who let the winds out of their knotted handkerchiefs up towards the Finnish border. I knew they lived according to a different logic than I had done until my father abandoned me to the wild beasts by his human carelessness…I was a young girl, a virgin, and therefore men denied me rationality just as they denied it to all those who were not exactly like themselves, in all their unreason.”

This Angela Carter, and so things do not play out as tradition would dictate: there is no helpless heroine surrendering herself to a man in this tale:

“I squatted on the wet straw and stretched out my hand. I was now within the field of force of his golden eyes. He growled at the back of his throat, lowered his head, sank on to his forepaws, snarled, showed me his red gullet, his yellow teeth. I never moved. He snuffed the air, as if to smell my fear; he could not.

Slowly, slowly he began to drag his heavy, gleaming weight across the floor towards me.”

The transformation in the tale is two-sided and empowering. It is everything you would expect from Carter: weird, surprising, audacious, and above all skilfully written with beautiful, concise prose.

To end, a warning from The Librarians that you should never wish your life would transform to a fairytale:

 

 

“When I was a teenager, I read a lot of Poe.” (Dario Argento)

It’s Hallowe’en!  OK, it was Hallowe’en.  I delayed this post slightly to make it a joint one for my friend D’s birthday, as she is a massive fan of Gothic. Happy Birthday D!

While the cooler kids are no doubt watching films by Dario Argento last Thursday, (who I’ve quoted above) there are some for whom nothing says horror like Hammer.  Hammer Films are a British production company whose classic output you can see clips from here:

Some insight into my upbringing there: as a teenager my mother fell in love with Christopher Lee in those roles; it’s a wonder I’m so normal (I always brush my fangs every night before bed).  Also, one of my long-standing girl crushes, Valerie Leon, makes an appearance in the Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb.  She’s the one the narrator describes as “smoking hot”, and indeed she is.  Oh Valerie, how I wish I looked like you, even a little bit would do…  If you think To the Devil a Daughter looks amusing, well, you are probably right.  I’ve never seen it, but a few years back I took my mother to a talk by Richard Widmark.  Christopher Lee made an impromptu appearance in the audience (my mother is still recovering, as am I, to be honest) and the two of them reminiscing about that film was the funniest part of the night.  Definitely worth a look, I’d say.

But this is supposed to be about books, right?  Well, I’m getting there.  Hammer have produced some pretty high-profile films in recent years, including The Woman in Black.  As part of their raised profile, they’ve gone into partnership with Arrow books, and asked contemporary authors (Helen Dunmore, Julie Myerson, Sophie Hannah, Melvin Burgess) to write some creepy stories.  I thought it was the perfect marriage for a Hallowe’en book blog post, so my first choice is The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson (Arrow Books in association with Hammer, 2012). The novel tells the story of the Lancashire Witch trials of 1612.   Winterson has taken this real-life story and woven it with her own fiction to brilliantly evoke a nation caught up in paranoia around the power of women, of ritual, and of a new Protestant faith trying hard to establish itself over the old Catholic one.  Lancashire was a Catholic stronghold, and it’s where the conspirators of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot sought refuge:

“The north of England is untamed.  It can be subdued but it cannot be tamed.  Lancashire is the wild part of the untamed.  The Forest of Pendle used to be a hunting ground, but some say that the hill is the hunter – alive in its black-and-green coat cropped like an animal pelt.”

Alice Nutter is a rich woman who lives alone, rides astride, engages in falconry, and rescues witches from a ducking.  Given these unwomanly ways, she naturally raises suspicions.  She studied under the occultist John Dee, and invented a deep magenta dye “like looking into a mirror made of mercury” which made her fortune. Alice struggles to remain apart from the society she is surrounded by, and eventually gets drawn into the town politics that have seen several women arrested on witchcraft.  The Daylight Gate is a short novel and I don’t want to give too much away, but what I will say is that amongst the witchcraft (severed heads talking with other people’s blackened tongues, people transforming into hares, familiars, elixirs of youth and the like) what is truly shocking is the state-sanctioned capture and torture, based entirely in reality.  Brace yourselves:

“In the cell was a rack, a winch, a furnace, a set of branding irons, a pot for melting wax, nails of different lengths.  A thumbscrew, a pair of flesh tongs, heavy tweezers, a set of surgical instruments, a series of small metal trays, ropes, wire, preparations of quicklime, a hood and a blindfold […] They made a small neat cut in his side and drained a quart of blood to weaken him.  Then they forced him to drink a pint of salt water.  They did not break his fingers joint by joint or pull out his teeth one by one.  They were relaxed. They drew pictures on his chest with delicate knives…they pinned back his eyelids with metal clips and dropped hot wax into his eyeballs. When he screamed they debated whether or not to take out his tongue.  But they wanted his tongue for confession.”

Eek.  I’m not a big fan of horror, but I imagine part of the appeal is that it’s a safe way to scare yourself, secure in the knowledge that Freddy Kruger et al are entirely removed from your life.  In The Daylight Gate, Winterson shows us the horrors that really aren’t so far removed, and as such offers very little comfort.  A truly chilling read for Hallowe’en.

Secondly, The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796, my copy Oxford University Press 1995).  The Monk was written by Lewis in 10 weeks, shortly before he turned 20.  I decided to read it as at least 3 people, including my friend D, told me it was the most barking mad novel they’d ever come across.  How could I resist?  They were so right, I had no idea how right they were.  The Monk is so insane, to try and review it is near impossible.  Its plot is so convoluted, I can’t give you a summary in a single blog post. Instead, let’s make a list of typical Gothic tropes:

  • Virginal, beautiful young maidens who struggle to remain so
  • Old crones, often in caretaking capacity to the young maiden
  • People with obscure origins inc. family members pretending to be other than they are, to get close to family who for some reason have spurned them
  • Large buildings, many rooms/corridors/secret passageways
  • Large building probably also crumbling
  • Large building has garden where weather ably reflects psychological states of characters
  • Curses – which are ignored at peril also, oaths of vengence
  • Transgressions – religious/sexual (forbidden desires)/moral/societal (leading to or caused by isolation from society)
  • Supernatural – ghosts/spontaneous bleeding inc. signs in blood/resurrections
  • Magic – inc. witches/objects that provide user with all they desire/potions
  • Death and feigned death, murders
  • Dungeons
  • Torture
  • And, of course – Satan

Yep, The Monk has them all.  I can’t believe Lewis forgot to include vampires.  Maybe he thought that was going too far…

Here is a trailer for the most recent adaptation of the novel; the makers should be commended for even attempting it.  No-one does insanity-induced strabismus like Vincent Cassell: