Posts Tagged book reviews

Arthur Machen: “An Ecstasy of Fear”

16 April 2012

Arthur Machen - http://www.johncoulthart.com

Arthur Machen, by John Coulthart (1988)

In 1923 H.P. Lovecraft described Arthur Machen as “a Titan—perhaps the greatest living author,” and vowed to read everything he wrote. “There is in Machen,” he later wrote, “an ecstasy of fear that all other living men are too obtuse or timid to capture, and that even Poe failed to envisage in all its starkest abnormality.” In developing his Cthulhu Mythos Lovecraft drew heavily upon Machen’s stories, which abound with sinister, malefic entities that exist on the borders of human perception and are capable of inflicting unutterable, mind-fucking horrors upon those who are foolish enough to venture after them. 

Whereas Lovecraft invoked the mindscapes of science fiction in order to lend his horror its cosmic scale, Machen conjured his eldrich abominations out of the pagan lore of his native Welsh countryside. A one-time member of the Golden Dawn, his stories are occult to the bone. They evoke not the existential horror of the human race adrift in a hostile, indifferent universe, but our ancient, lingering fears of the Other, as remembered—with a certain, ominous undertone—in the language folk tales and superstition. Take this passage from The Three Impostors (1895): 

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Margaret Hale: The Morbid Homemaker

23 March 2012
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Daniela Denby-Ashe Portrays Margaret Hale in the BBC Adaptation of “North and South.”

Margaret Hale is a good and proper English lady who confronts angry rioters and challenges men on questions of industrial labor relations. Her brother is a mutineer living in exile in Spain. Her father is former vicar turned non-conformist who has relocated his family from an idyllic southern village to a bleak northern industrial town where her mother’s health promptly begins to fail. At nineteen years old she has to contend with death, civil unrest and the police, but along the way she grows  enamored to her dynamic new way of life in the North of Britain.

Published as a weekly from 1854-55, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South takes an unflinching look at the fault lines in British society in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Weaving contemporary social issues into an elegant coming-of-age story, Gaskell takes a frank yet even-handed view of the cultural differences between the industrial North and agrarian South, and the emergence of labor unions. She portrays religious intolerance, the injustice of courts martial, and the entrapment of women. She takes on all of these issues and more with a combination of clarity, nuance and sophistication that is rare among social critics of any century.

North and South is a veritable treasure trove of historical detail and nuance of the sort beloved by social historians and period writers alike. Here the cultural norms that form the background of more conventional works are brought into the forefront, contrasted across regional and class lines, made the topics of passionate debate, and—best of all—transgressed. It is also a good story. One of its most poignant features consists in its portrayal of ritual mourning and compassion toward dying as wellsprings of social cohesion.

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Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood

1 March 2012

Sir Francis Varney was the First Vampire to Sport a Cloak while Terrorizing Young Maidens.

James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire has been described as the worst book of the 19th century. Introduced in 1845, the completed serial consists of over 600,000 words of tedious dialog, aimlessly meandering storylines, maddening repetition, and enough kernels of genius to consistently inspire horror fiction into the present day. Bram Stoker, Anne Rice, Stephen King, Russell T. Davies and Freidrich Wilhelm Murnau are just some of the writers and filmmakers who have been indebted to concepts originated in the pages of Varney, making it easily the most influential vampire story that nobody reads.

The first full-length work of vampire fiction, Varney appeared in the penny press some 36 years after the original short story sketches by Lord Byron and John William Polidori, and decades before J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). It can thus be conceived of as a transitional work, expanding upon some of the ideas of its predecessors while introducing many familiar tropes that were soon be canonized into the genre, but along the way it also explored themes that were way ahead of their time. 
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Who Haunted Betsy Bell?

14 January 2012

Elizabeth Bell

The visitations began with sightings of strange animals about the Bell homestead, and of a unknown girl in green swinging to the limb of a tall oak. Soon there came an unaccountable knocking about the door and exterior walls of the house, followed by scratching and gnawing sounds that searched from room to room. It assaulted the boys in the night, ripping the sheets from their beds and pulling their hair as they tried to sleep. Whenever candles were lit to investigate, they would soon hear screams coming from their sister’s room. 

Betsy Bell was 12 years old in 1818 when she became the thrall of an unseen tormentor who, for some three years, relentlessly beat her, mangled her hair, pinched and pricked her skin, and once caused her to vomit pins and needles. Her family, early, well-respected settlers of Robertson County, TN, at first tried removing her from the home, but to no avail—the disturbances followed her wherever she went. It was intelligent and, moreover, able to communicate. 

At first the communication was mediated through conventional spirit rapping techniques, but soon it achieved a faltering whisper that grew into a disembodied voice, able to be heard distinctly by everyone in the room. The so-called Bell Witch—or “Kate,” as she came to be known—went on to grant many interviews, over the course of which she sang, gossiped, played tricks, and aped the sermons of local ministers, all the while heaping violent torments on Betsy, her family, and visiting skeptics.

Above all, “Kate” hated Betsy’s father—John Bell, or “Old Jack,” as she addressed him—and swore that she would torture him to death. Coincident with her arrival, he had begun suffering from facial seizures that limited his ability to speak and consume food, and when he ultimately died in 1820, the witch pointed out a vial of poison that she had used to do him in. It was only after John Bell was thus dead that the witch began to release her grip on Betsy, the manifestations more or less coming to an end by 1821. 

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Before Dracula, there was Carmilla

10 December 2011

“Love will have its sacrifices. No sacrifice without blood.”

—Carmilla

First published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was destined to become the universally-acknowledged masterwork of vampire fiction, but it was not, by any means, the first of its kind. Stokers genius consisted not in having invented the modern vampire monster, but in the imaginative way he synthesized and expanded upon the ideas that prior authors had already been exploring.

One of these was J. Sheridan Le Fanu, whose 1872 tale Carmilla provided a template for many of Dracula’s best-remembered characters and motifs, including the occult doctor (Dr. Hesselius), and the lonely Gothic castle set in a barbarous region of Europe. Many of the proper names in Dracula, in fact, are direct allusions to Carmilla’s characters and settings: “Karnstein” became “Carfax,” “Reinfeldt” became “Renfield,” and so on. Le Fanu’s protagonist, Laura, corresponds roughly to Stoker’s Mina; both are afflicted young women whose souls come depend upon their families’ efforts to unravel the vampire mystery. 

Carmilla is told in the first person, from Laura’s point of view. She is a lonely Englishwoman who lives with her father and governesses in an ancient scholss in Styria (southeast Austria). After receiving word of the sudden death of a would-be guest, Bertha Reinfeldt, Laura and company gather on the castle drawbridge to admire a calm, full-moon night when an out-of-control carriage crashes in upon the scene. A weak, unconscious Carmilla is thrown from the compartment in the accident that ensues. Her “mother,” a mysterious noblewomen, professes to be on an urgent, secret mission, but reluctantly consents to leave Carmilla to recover in the family’s care. 

Laura quickly recognizes Carmilla from a dream she had as a child; a dream of being visited in bed at night, and bitten on the shoulder. Carmilla, too, professes to remember Laura from a corresponding dream, wherein she awoke to find herself in an unfamiliar bed chamber, and Laura there. Quickly, they develop an intimate friendship, characterized pressings of hands, kissing of cheeks, and plenty of blushing. 

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Mord Em’ly’s Late-Victorian Moxie

12 November 2011

Betty Balfour appeared in the 1922 silent film version of Mord Em'ly

Published in 1901, William Pett Ridge’s Mord Em’ly opens to a pitched battle between rival girl-gangs on the mean streets of south London. Hair is pulled, faces are scratched, and innocent hats are senselessly trampled. If you have ever succumbed beneath the tedium of a Dickens novel, here is something a bit more lively. 

The story follows its charismatic, working-class heroine, Mord Em’ly (“Maud Emily”), as she is arrested for shoplifting at the age of twelve and sent to an industrial school. Later, she escapes and returns to London only to find that her gang has moved on, and that the old neighborhood has lost some of its luster. In the intervening years, she has grown up a bit, and she continues to grow as she is forced to confront a new set of conflicts, including an abusive, heretofore absent father who turns up to demand money. 

Mord Em’ly is no damsel in distress, however, nor is she a hapless victim of social conditions. She has a strong, self-reliant personality, and an eviscerating, razor-wit that permit her to maintain her independence in spite of a cast of characters and institutions who are alternatively out to rescue or enslave her. Her story is colored by ironical descriptions and amusingly sharp, caustic dialog—as in this exchange between Mord Em’ly and an aggressive stranger who bullies her girlfriend, Ronicker, at a boxing match: 

“Make her shut her head, then,” said the lean-faced man aggrievedly. “I don’t want no truck with her. Make the—”

“Less language,” commanded More Em’ly. “Don’t forget you’re in the presence of ladies.” The lean-faced man laughed ironically.

You!” he said vehemently. “You call yourselves ladies! You’re what I call—well, I won’t say what I call you. I’ve got gentlemanly feelings beneath a ‘omley exterior, and I know how to be’ave as well as anyone.”

“You cert’n’y are ‘omley.”

“If I meet with ceevility,” said the lean-faced man, in a dogged way, “I give ceevility back. If I meet with inceevility, I give inceevility back. If I’ve got a single fault—”

“Who’s been telling you that?” 

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The Witches of New York

21 May 2011

In the 1850’s the humorist Mortimer Thomson, writing as Q. K. Philander Doesticks, set his sights on the fortune-tellers, clairvoyants, and astrologers of New York City. Under the pretense of wanting their services, he visited a cross-section of his local oracles and documented his experiences in a series of newspaper articles that became the 1856 book The Witches of New York; a volume that is one part humor, one part skepticism, and one part anthropology.

Thomson was a colorful figure whose obituary credits him with having been expelled from Michigan University for “too much enterprise in securing subjects for the dissecting room.” His prose is highly comedic. In one chapter he impersonated a woman in order to obtain an interview at a ladies-only establishment; a “Crinolinic Stratagem,” as he put it, that afforded him the opportunity to glimpse an image of his future husband.

Much of the humor in The Witches of New York plays upon the contrast between expectations and reality. One by one, the mysterious oracles advertising themselves in local newspapers are revealed to be unassuming alcoholics and former prostitutes who recite vague, boilerplate fortunes, employ cheap parlor tricks and make poor attempts at cold reading. Here is typical example in which a well-established sorceress named Madame Prewster attempts to divine the name of Thomson’s true love:

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