“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:

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” (Oscar Wilde)

I inherited all the great loves of my life from my mother: literature, the theatre, film, Islay single malt whisky, and cheese that will blow out your nasal passages from 50 metres. We don’t agree on everything: Kris Kristofferson remains an enduring source of contention (me: total  1970s love god, have you seen A Star is Born? She: eyes are too small. Neither of us is willing to back down.) These enormous differences aside, we get on pretty well, and so Mother’s Day is a source of celebration in my family.  In the UK Mother’s Day is 10 March (for once I’ve managed to post on time, in fact a day early as tomorrow will be spent cooking up a feast for the family), so to any of you who aren’t from the UK, Ireland or Nigeria (ie where Mother’s Day is the 4th Sunday in Lent), I apologise and ask that you view this as a postponed/pre-emptive post depending on when Mother’s Day occurs for you. I’ve chosen one book written about a mother from the point of view of a child, and one written from a mother to her child.  Both merge fiction with biography and contain significant sadness, but both are about the triumph of the human spirit. Well, mother-child relationships can be among the most complex…

Firstly, a novel that my English teacher at school thought was very nearly perfectly written: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985, my copy Vintage, 1991).  Oranges tells the story of Jeanette, who grows up in an evangelical household in the north of England.  Her mother is a strong, dominant and domineering woman who initially believes Jeanette will help her in her idiosyncratic crusade against sin.  As Jeanette gets older, she realises she is attracted to women, and acts on this.  Her refusal to subdue who she is to the will of her mother leads to a failed religious intervention (almost exorcism) and eventually a breakdown in their relationship.  If this sounds utterly heavy and depressing, let me assure you it’s not.  Humour runs throughout the whole of Oranges, a gentle prodding at the absurdity of life:

““You can always tell a good woman by her sandwiches,” declared Pastor Finch.

My mother blushed.

Then he turned to me and said, “How old are you, little girl?”

“Seven.” I replied.

“Ah, seven,” he muttered. “How blessed, the seven days of creation, the seven branched candlestick, the seven seals.”

(Seven seals? I had not yet reached the Revelation in my directed reading, and I thought he meant some Old Testament amphibians I had overlooked….)

…”Yes,” he went on, “how blessed,” then his brow clouded. “But how cursed.” At this word his fist hit the table and catapulted a cheese sandwich into the collection bag;”

The narrative is interspersed with a fairytale that echoes the main narrative. This serves to broaden the perspective away from its immediate setting, and emphasise that while it is a unique story that is being told, it is also something familiar to us all, a fable.  We may not all be northern English, evangelical Christian and gay, but, in the words of the author:

“Everyone, at some time in their life, must choose whether to stay with a ready-made world that may be safe but is also limiting, or to push forward, often past the frontiers of commonsense, into a personal place, unknown and untried.”

Oranges is fantastically well written (when the author was just 24) and succeeds in being challenging and complex, but also easy to read and reassuring.  The language is poetic and exacting but never overblown:

“We lived in a town stolen from the valleys, a huddled place full of chimneys and little shops and back-to-back houses with no gardens. The hills surrounded us, and our own swept out into the Pennines, broken now and again with a farm or a relic from the war. There used to be a lot of old tanks but the council took them away.”

Oranges is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors and so of course, I highly recommend it.  The author was asked if it was autobiographical.  Her answer: “No not at all and yes of course.”  For those of you who enjoy it, I also recommend Why Be Happy when you Could Be Normal?,  Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography, (the title taken from a question her mother asked her when she came out) which shows the story behind Oranges, and also beyond it.

Secondly, Paula by Isabel Allende (1994, my copy Flamingo, 1995 trans. Margaret Sayers Peden). Tragically, in 1991, Isabel Allende’s 28 year old daughter Paula fell into a coma caused by porphyria, and died in 1992 having never recovered. Paula is the story Allende writes for her daughter as she waits for her in the hospital, bringing her novelist’s sensibilities to the story of her family’s life:

“Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost. The legend of our family begins at the end of the last century, when a robust Basque sailor disembarked on the coast of Chile with his mother’s reliquary strung around his neck and his head swimming with plans for greatness.”

Those of you who enjoy Allende’s fiction will find the same style here, and some very recognisable characters from The House of the Spirits. Allende writes vividly and with love of and for her family past and present.

“[Your grandmother] was drinking cheap pisco, and hiding the bottles in strategic places.  You Paula, who loved her with infinite compassion, discovered the hiding places one by one and without a word carried off the empty bottles and buried them amongst the dahlias in the garden.”

“Celia and Nicolas have asked me to come home to California for the arrival of their baby in May. They want me to take part in the birth of my granddaughter; they say after so many months of being exposed to death, pain, farewells, and tears, it will be a celebration to welcome this infant as her head thrusts into life. If the visions I had in dreams come true, as they have in other times, she will be a dark-haired, likeable little girl , with a will of her own. You must get better soon, Paula, so you can go home with me and be Andrea’s godmother.”

Time is not linear or earthbound in Paula, as the family’s past, present and spirits all exist in a mother’s story, evoked in a hospital room. The final third of the book sees Allende stop talking to Paula and instead speak to the reader, as she loses hope that her daughter will recover.   However, the death of her daughter is not an irretrievable loss for Allende who has an acute awareness of the afterlife and sees her family around her whether they are alive or dead.

“She died in my arms, surrounded by her family, the thoughts of those absent, and the spirits of her ancestors who had come to her aid. She died with the same perfect grace that characterised all the acts of her life.”

Paula is a hugely affecting narrative of one of the hardest experiences a mother can live through, but ultimately the enormity of the familial love that surrounds Paula is the strongest force, and this makes it a great Mother’s Day read.

Here are the books alongside the gorgeous Kris.  To my mother I say, Happy Mother’s Day, Maman, and I hope titling this post with a quote from your beloved Oscar compensates for my insistence on presence of Mr Kristofferson.  And yes, I am planning a substantial cheese plate for the meal tomorrow, don’t worry….

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