“It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.” (Vincent Price)

Happy Hallowe’en Everyone! I’m not really one for scary fiction as I’m far too easily spooked, but I have managed to find two books in the TBR that were perfect Hallowe’en reading and not too much for my delicate sensibilities.

Firstly, I finished The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (1979), her collection of short stories which rework the classic tropes of fairytales into Carter’s own disturbing, sexual, feminist, Gothic stories. I’ve written about The Snow Child, The Werewolf and The Tiger’s Bride before, but somehow not got round to finishing the collection. This year of the book-buying ban (nearly finished!) is all about ploughing through the TBR pile so this was a good opportunity to get the collection dusted off and finished.

Angela Carter is a writer people have strong feelings about, so I’ll start with a disclaimer: I am firmly in the ‘for’ camp. I think she’s brilliantly inventive, political, funny and deeply unnerving. I never find her comfortable read, and I love that. So if you’re in the ‘agin’ camp you might want to skip through to my second choice of David Mitchell 😊

If you’re a fan like me, The Bloody Chamber will give you all you desire. The titular story is a heady mix of sexual awakening and mortal danger as a young woman marries an older French Marquis (natch):

“For the opera, I wore a sinuous shift of white muslin tied with a silk string under the breasts. And everyone stared at me. And at his wedding gift.

His wedding gift, clasped around my throat. A choker of rubies, two inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.”

The story is a retelling of Bluebeard, but as the woman is a Carter heroine, she is not a naïve virgin wandering blindly into a danger but someone who understands more than she knows, and she knows that there is something very wrong with her husband:

“I felt a strange, impersonal arousal at the thought of love  and at the same time a repugnance I could not stifle for his white, heavy flesh that had too much in common with the armfuls of arum lilies that filled my bedroom in great glass jars, those undertakers lilies with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you.”

I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say Bluebeard doesn’t quite have things work out for him the way he hoped. Carter uses the retelling of familiar tales to give women agency: they are not there to be eaten by wolves, seduced by royalty when unconscious, or rescued by a heterosexual love interest. Neither are they the pure-as-snow heroines who survive to enter marriage; when they survive it is as women with complex motives and strategic means of never relinquishing control. They are to be reckoned with.

If this sounds didactic, it really isn’t. Carter never loses sight of spinning a good yarn, and she does so with humour. This is most apparent in Puss in Boots, a first person narrative voiced by the eponymous feline, a cheeky servant who does his master’s bidding while never losing sight of his own ends:

“So Puss got his post at the same time as his boots and I dare say the Master and I have much in common for he’s proud as the devil, touchy as tin-tacks, lecherous as liquorice and, though I say it as loves him, as quick-witted a rascal as ever put on clean linen.”

Puss also recalls The Barber of Seville, in comic exuberance, machinations, and names:

“Figaro here; Figaro, there, I tell you! Figaro upstairs, Figaro downstairs and–oh, my goodness me, this little Figaro can slip into my lady’s chamber smart as you like at any time whatsoever that he takes the fancy for, don’t you know, he’s a cat of the world, cosmopolitan, sophisticated; he can tell when a furry friend is the Missus’ best company. For what lady in all the world could say ‘no’ to the passionate yet toujours discret advances of a fine marmalade cat?”

While she’s undoubtedly burlesque, Carter is a writer with serious concerns, and plenty to say about the position of women, both in the fairytale tradition and society as a whole. It’s far from all she has to say, but for me at this time, it was the main message I took away. For this reason I’ll finish with a quote from The Erl-King:

 “When I realized what the Erl-King meant to do to me, I was shaken with a terrible fear and I did not know what to do for I loved him with all my heart and yet I had no wish to join the whistling congregation he kept in his cages although he looked after them very affectionately, gave them fresh water every day and fed them well. His embraces were his enticements and yet, oh yet! they were the branches of which the trap itself was woven.

Secondly, Slade House by David Mitchell (2015); it was Cathy’s recent review which prompted me to get my copy down from the shelf. Like Carter, Mitchell is clearly having fun with this work. It’s not typical of him – for one thing, at 233 pages its about a third the size of his usual tomes – but it does still have many of his trademarks: references to his other works, interconnected stories, time shifts. It’s a companion piece to The Bone Clocks; that novel remains buried in my TBR somewhere but I didn’t find that not having read it affected my enjoyment of Slade House at all. You’ll be pleased to hear this is a short review as I desperately try and avoid spoilers…

The first story, The Right Sort (which began life as a Twitter story, which you can read here) is set in 1979 and is told by Nathan Bishop, who is accompanying his mother to Slade House. Nathan is lonely and isolated: his father has left and he doesn’t really have friends. He may be on the autistic spectrum:

“Mum lets go of my wrist. That’s better.

I don’t know what her face is saying.”

Once they arrive at Slade House, Nathan’s mum goes into the vast pile with Lady Grayer, while Nathan spends time with her son Jonah. The experience has a blurry, unreal quality, possibly due to the fact that Nathan has taken one of his mother’s Valium:

“A dragonfly settles on a bulrush an inch from my nose. It’s wings are like cellophane and Jonah says ‘Its wings are like cellophane’ and I say, ‘I was just thinking that,’ but Jonah says ‘Just thinking what?’ so maybe I just thought he’d said it. Valium rubs out speech marks and pops thought-bubbles. I’ve noticed it before.”

In the following story, Shining Armour, corrupt copper Gordon Edmonds is half-heartedly investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mum, as a man has awakened from a coma and was the last person to speak to them, nine years earlier. Another nine years later and a student paranormal society are interested in Slade House:

“Todd the mathematician works it out first. ‘Christ, I’ve got it. The Bishops vanished on the last Saturday in October 1979; fast-forward nine years and Gordon Edmonds vanishes on the last Saturday in October 1988; fast-forward another nine years and you get…’ He glances at Axel, who nods. ‘Today.’

I can’t help feeling things are not going to work out well for the curious students…

What is going on at Slade House? Why can’t it be found on maps? What happens every nine years? Who is responsible? And is anyone going to stop them?

“ ‘That’s the only prize worth hunting. And what we want, what we dream of. The stage props change down the ages, but the dream stays the same: philosophers’ stones, magic fountains in lost Tibetan valleys, lichens that slow the decay of our cells, tanks of liquid that’ll freeze us for a few centuries; computers that’ll store our personalities as ones and zeroes for the rest of time. To call a spade a spade: immortality.’”

The wackometer needle is stuck on 11. ‘I see.’”

Mitchell’s legions of fans might be a bit disappointed with Slade House; as I mentioned, it’s definitely not typical of him. I really enjoyed it though. As a quick, fun, slightly spooky read for autumn, it was spot-on.

To end, a song which I only found out this week was once banned by the BBC, who hilariously thought dancing monsters were ‘too morbid’ for impressionable young minds:

“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: