Friday, 30 May 2014

What I've been reading: Deaf Sentence, Gone With the Wind, and make it stop, please, make it stop.

Insert witty comment here
Did you know that if a man tells you any variation of, "You're gorgeous when you're mad", he can seek no legal redress when you punch him in the nuts?

Seriously, how does Gone with the Wind get classified as a romance? Scarlett, as I said last week, is alarmingly pathetic. Rhett Butler is vilest variation on human standard that I've had the misfortune to encounter in a long while. And it's racist. It is so very, very racist. Not just in a "of it's time" kind of way, or a, "call it problematic and rant online" way, but deeply, structurally, horribly and repeatedly racist.

It's toxic. I don't say that lightly. This book is pure poison. It's hateful, hurtful bollocks under a thin veneer of clothes porn. I don't believe in censorship, and viewed as a cultural artefact, it has some interest, but that there are still people out there who read this uncritically? The thought makes me cold and slightly nauseous.

This isn't to say there aren't some half-decent passages, there isn't some good writing, but the values endorsed by the book can be summed up in Melly: kind, compassionate, intelligent and with steel in her spine, she is the kind of woman I'd respect were she not a foaming at the mouth, unthinking bigot. This book terrifies me and not in the way I like to be terrified. It's a book which excuses the Klan, which makes out slavery was a meritocracy and destroys solidarity between oppressed groups. It is a book reproduces rape culture so that the victim is not just responsible for her rape, but for the deaths by lynching of the men who raped her, the arrest and execution of the men who did the lynching and any negative side effects other women feel because of her 'easy' behaviour. It is a horrible, irresponsible novel.

Don't read it. Please, do not read it.

So, feeling a bit fragile, I read some David Lodge. You know where you stand with David Lodge, or at least, I do. The slightly fusty, academic characters are enough like you to engender broad sympathy, but tinged with enough knowing ludicrousness that you walk nicely along the line of 'laughing at' and 'laughing with'. Deaf Sentence, based on wordplay, explores the tribulations and embarrassments and despair of gradual hearing loss, returning again and again to the theme that whereas blindness is a trope of tragedy, deafness is always portrayed as comic.

As with every Lodge novel, it has enough references and critical theory to flatter this reader's intelligence without ever actually challenging it, and it provides a smooth, amusing and occasionally cringe-worthy in its comedy. Then you hit the final chapters. Then you realise that there was a darker undertone throughout the book, a terror, a sadness, a deeper sense of transience grounded in loss of communication, the inadequacy of writing or of speech. In my slightly wounded state following the hatefulness of Gone with the Wind, the tragedy of the last movement of the book hit pretty hard. What Lodge is trying to explore - the tragedy of deafness - is managed pretty effectively, and of course, being Lodge, he offers us the kind of comfort we receive best - the wordless, human compassion of touch, the quiet, harmless current of school-room trivia. When words fall away, these things remain.

Still, not exactly nice on my emotions, so now I'm reading The League. I know where I am with The League because I've read it before. Except...

Used for review purposes

Why is there an elephant being winched down that dock?

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

From Resistance to Weakness: problems of gender in vampire fiction, part 2

This is the second part in a series of blog posts about late 19th and early 20th Century vampire fiction. The first can be found here.

From Flora to Lucy, resistance to weakness:

While the vampires in early vampire fiction are encoded as effeminate, they find their sustenance, their reproduction, in the weakness, the leakiness, of women. True, not all women succumb. Much of the point of Varney, the Vampyre – if that particular book has a point1 – is that most young women of virtue will not be won over by a well dressed stranger with a charming tongue. Even the narrator of Carmilla, half-seduced, draws back from her vampire-lover's overt declaration of romantic love.

It is only in The Vampyre that we see women as wholly, irrevocably flawed, that we see this effeminacy an innate characteristic that even the most 'feminine' possess: "Remember your oath, and know, if not my bride today, your sister is dishonoured. Women are frail!"

Towards the end of the 19th Century, and beginning of the 20th the frail nature of femininity, its tendency towards effeminacy - become the crux of the vampire narrative. Damn these women, after all, with their bodies that don't give clear signals, their endless 'potential' that only serves to tempt upstanding men! Damn the way the fall out all over the place, their ... fleshy appendages, their wandering wombs, refusal to be contained by our discourses of virtue, of femininity.

Okay, maybe not that thin
And as the female victims fail to remain in their divinely ordained place, so the male vampires cease to be contained by the their skins. From the sang froid of Ruthven, the skeletally thin Varney with his flat, tin coloured eyes, we move the Von Klatka (1860) and Dracula (1897) – no longer serpentine agents of seduction but undeniable lumps of carnal flesh.

Beginning their stories withered, thin, even desiccated, the blood they drink destroys their masculinity. Their cheeks and lips are rouged by it, their mouths become fuller, more sensual. They grow lethargic, glutted and glutinous, getting something of Carmilla's languor with nothing of her cool attractiveness. Yet, despite becoming less male, less 'human', despite becoming more of the body, despite slipping back into their grave-dirt and ruins and shrouds, all of a sudden, women are no longer able to resist them.

Female sexuality as deviant by default:

Franziska, of The Mysterious Stranger would “rather be tyrannized over, and kept a little under” than “loved in such a wearisome manner.” The suitor whom she thus insults is the quiet, kind and cultured Franz, a man who 'serves' her in very much the way traditional Christian rhetoric suggests that Christ serves the Church. She, of course, refuses to submit to his affections. Yet despite her scorn, Franz is the perfect Enlightenment man, a being of the head rather than the body, a creature of reason, not of instinct. It is ironic, therefore, that she levels at him the charge of effiminacy because he does not present something that appeals to her sexuality. Each evidence of his 'true' masculinity is seen as a flaw. Because Franz is rational, she finds him wearisome, because Franz is prudent, she believes him cowardly, because Franz is chivalrous, she thinks him lacking in spirit. Of course, from the moment she meets Azzo Von Klatka - ugly, rude, animalistic - she is utterly taken with him.

Women, eh?” we're supposed to say, reading from the script of 'Nice Guys' everywhere, “Look at everything I've done for her and she runs off with that jerk.” But then, that's women for you, isn't it? Irrational. Dangerous. Sexually deviant. They sleep with lepers, you know?

The women of Dracula don't fare much better. Oh, the don't seek out the vampire with quite Franziska's single-mindedness, but there is something of duplicity implied about them. Of course, with their 'man-brains' they do not want the vampire to attack them, but in their 'woman-hearts?' Why, Mina even states, “I was bewildered and, strangely enough, I did not want to hinder him.”

How do we explain this?

Well, in what is probably the novel's finest double entendre, Dracula announces that the men “should have kept their energies for use closer to home.”

Yes, “While they played their wits against me... I was countermining them. And you, their best beloved one, are now to me flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood... You shall be avenged in turn, for not one of them but shall minister to your needs.”
Used for review purposes
Who wouldn't want that?

Put simply, guys, while you're too busy being macho men, your girlfriend will be getting her kicks by sucking off some backwoods freakshow with hairy palms.2 If there was ever an exercise in heterosexual male paranoia...

The message of Dracula, of The Mysterious Stranger is that women, however good, however pure, are not to be trusted. They are the flaw by which these entities are able sneak into your circle, they will be turned against you by their inexplicable lusts. Oh, of course, they might be the sweetest, kindest, most sensible of women; they may be the most feminine creatures you can imagine, but when push comes to shove, it is that effeminacy that will show through. Effeminacy is nature, it seems, femininity is the construct of society.

It isn't even the vampire's fault, you know, the narratives are pretty clear on that: these women will not want to hinder him.

Male desire, feminine perversity:
Men, of course, fine upstanding, mindful creatures that they are, don't find themselves drawn to such revolting beasts as Dracula or Von Klatka. No. The female vampires that seduce them are much more alluring. Oh, evil, sure, but there is enough there for the attraction to be understandable, even natural, in some measure.

Just as Carmilla is beautiful, forward and unsettling, Harriet Brandt (1897) is “slight and lissome” and desperately improper, Sarah (1900) has a face that is “beautiful in spite of its horror”. The women in Dracula are of “intolerable, tingling sweetness”, they have a “deliberate voluptuousness” which is both “thrilling and repulsive.” It's no wonder the men are attracted to them really – they have all manner of female wiles with which to ensnare him. They do it through that time honoured means, through an appeal to his base nature, through exciting his... flesh3.

used for review purposes
Your classic vamp.
The important thing to remember is that men aren't weird about it. These girls are hot. The desire of the heroes is understandable, given the circumstances. It is sinful, yes, but it is straight-forward rather than duplicitous and self-deceiving. Men are drawn in by these women's deliberate wiles, not led astray by their own, faulty natures.

And these vampire women are studies in effeminacy, too. They are not soft, they are not retiring. If anything they suffocate, they engulf. Gone is Carmilla's light, tripping intensity. Dracula's 'brides', Lucy Westernra and Countess Sarah are seductive, voluptuous. Harriet, more sympathetic, is eager, girlish, hungry for attention, for love, and it is this neediness that smothers those she adores.

The fear against them is simple: these women want. They grasp, they summon. Oh, yes, they are pretty, they are alluring, but to allow these women in, to allow one's lust for them to arise, is to to be seduced, to be made unclean, to be bitten. This, indeed, is a feature of Victorian vampire fiction: one need not, as in the modern myth, 'consent'. One does not need to does not need to drink of the vampire's blood to be turned. In order to be corrupted, all that is needed is to yield to that seduction, to allow oneself to succumb to that bite.

If the men forget their virility, their upstanding virtue and yield, if they show a moment of feminine softness, let themselves be governed by their bodies rather than their minds, then these tempters in such pleasing array will slide in and make leaky vessels of the menfolk, too. Gone will be good sense, intelligence, honest chivalry, worthwhile pursuits. They will be degraded, become decadent, indolent, hysterical, effete. Masculinity will fly out of the window. They will become, in short, effeminate.

But the cause of this is not some inherent flaw of masculinity. Oh, no. The blame is upon these damnable women for desiring, for wanting, for – as the phrase goes – 'asking for it.'

Essentially, you have the classic double bind: it is always the woman's fault.

Vampire women symbolise the lust which will capture a man if his energies are not properly spent. While it is better to marry than to burn, it's better still to be out doing masculine, homosocial things and leaving that wife at home. Sexuality might be a natural drive, but getting so hung up on it, y'know, actually spending time with your missus? That's unhealthy.

Women, of course, are another matter. If you do leave the wife at home, the bizarre perversity of her nature will mean she is not content sitting alone and practicing short-hand – or whatever it is these girls get up to. No. She will allow entrance to a vampire, that weird looking cove who really is repellent in all ways. Yes, the vampire man, that's who she wants, the one who symbolises all that energy that women just cannot expend healthily, all that eternally possible sexuality that cannot be trusted in anyway. Look, when it happens to the ladies, it isn't like you nearly getting bitten that time, no. This is perverse.

Hysterical lot, the females, aren't they?

If they're not utterly overpowered by those wandering wombs, a woman has a very definite place in vampire fiction. That place is... er... not doing whatever it is that she is doing. 

Part Three: Won't Somebody think of the Children

1Questionable, I'll warrant.
2Physically impossible to make someone drink from your chest in that position. Just sayin'.
3No giggling at the back there.

Friday, 23 May 2014

What I've been reading: Meanwhile, and Gone with the Wind

It's the model I feel sorry for.

 Oh Gods, why am I doing this to myself?

The messages of support on Twitter, the people assuring me that I shouldn't put myself through this, the wordless comfort of my husband as he comes home and slips a much-wanted comic book into my hands... Dear christ. The only thing that's kept me going so far is I've read 321 pages of this and made the rash claim in front of my book group that I don't give up when I've committed to a novel.

Oh vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

Which about sums up Gone with the Wind thus far. It isn't so much that I don't like it (I don't), or that if I'd invented a drinking game for every time an insulting term is used to describe a black person, I would be dead from alcohol poisoning, it's that I'm bored. In 321 pages - the length of a shortish novel - and Scarlett O'Hara has shown the character development of a potato. She started the book vain, selfish, stupid and trivial minded and - despite marriage, marital rape, having a baby, a war, a siege and literally hours nursing the wounded and dying she is still exactly the same. She wears her vapidity like an armour. It would almost be admirable, if it wasn't so...

Dear Christ! People talk about her being manipulative, about her being unlikeable, or ruthless. So far, she's showed none of that. She's a flirt, and not even a particularly accomplished one. People talk about her being rebellious. No. She has mastered a few, codified behaviours which her strict social order insists are proper and she would be content - if only she were permitted to do that. She gets angry about big, significant things - the war, the way widows are buried alive - but for reasons that make me want to beat her over the head with a copy of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, (and, while we're at it, The Vindication of the Rights of Man).

Honestly, when it comes down to it, I don't hate Scarlett - I pity her. Or, perhaps, more accurately, I don't want to believe in her. No-one should be like that, so limited, so smug, so emotionally stunted. If a woman like her really existed, I wouldn't bear her any ill will, I just wouldn't want to spend any time with her. The only reason I'm getting cross is because I have just done so. 321 pages of time. And I'm not even half-way, yet.

Thank God for Gary Spencer Millidge, that's all I can say. And with a cover like that it takes quite an effort of will to convince myself that this isn't actually an edition of Strangehaven. Ah, Strangehaven, the first comic I followed, the one I convinced everyone else to start reading, the one that then stopped  and left me crying over my bookshelves for almost nine years...

And with 'Chicken' in issue 4 of Meanwhile... it's back. And if I say it hasn't changed a bit, that is the highest compliment. Millidge has a remarkable ability to capture that blend of English small town boredom and the uncanny that makes most of the best weird literature this country produces. And, if there's any justice in the world, Millidge's name will soon be spoken of in that way. The story is not part of the central arc of volumes 1-18 of the comic, but the characters are familiar, as is the world of twee, very English magic ("I'm not chicken, Bobby... but it's raining...") and a humour that verges upon menace.

used for review purposes
Really, not what I normally read.
I'll admit, I bought this for the Strangehaven. I will also admit I find comic compilations kind of hard to read. The changes in tone, in style, take a while to get used to, and I suspect I'll have look at this a good handful  of times before I get to grips with it. My overall impression was very favourable. There were a fair few stories that I felt could have handled some more time to breathe - the limitations of form perhaps rushing both the script and the art. Still, some lovely stuff. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Howard Stangroom and Stephen Lowther's Pet Shop Boys in Rent. This is not the sort of thing I would usually seek out, but I was very impressed. I guess that's the point of things compilations like this - they draw you in through something familiar and expose you to stuff you wouldn't normally see. The aforementioned cramping of narrative did not occur, its pacing was exquisite and natural. What's more the art was beautiful and the dialogue witty and convincing. I actually found it very moving.

Other writers and illustrators who names have been added to my 'keep an eye out for' list are Alistair Little, Frazer Alex Irving or David Hailwood. If Strangehaven is back, I guess it's time for me to get into comics again. Ah, what a burden...

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Vampire as a Leaky Vessel: problems of gender in vampire fiction, part 1

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will update weekly, addressing late 19th and early 20th Century vampire fiction:

So, I'm not entirely sure where I first encountered the expression, “the female body is a leaky vessel”, but I know it was at some point during my BA. I was reading one of those books I used to get to peruse – the ones with titles like, Queering the Middle Ages1. Anyway, I liked the phrase. It stuck with me all through the writing, reading and note-taking I did on archetypes in folk ballads and the legality and theology behind pre-1750 marriage, simply because that is a brilliant way of looking at the whole squeamish, misogynist mess surrounding bodies in our culture. The female body is leaky.

For we have, do we not, a dichotomy in the dominant social discourse? A myth of two genders who fall under that generic term of 'mankind'. Two genders, one of which does it all properly, and another which doesn't exactly play ball, which is – not to put too fine a point on it – faulty. After all, women don't have a discreet pattern of arousal. They don't have nice, neat interaction with the reproductive process, an inoffensive little flap of tissue that hangs down, and – in theory - only makes its presence felt, only making a mess when it is called upon to do its duty. If the male member realises that it is not wanted, it can – at least theoretically – make its retreat. After the business is done, it need only wash itself and we are back to square one, back to the unperturbed, normative, sexless body of inert masculinity.

Without that pattern of arousal, while the female body can never be considered entirely sexual, it is also never - socially, politically, or even physically – inert. In terms of sexuality, the female body is leaky.

If it were not enough that women can't have a man's proud, upstanding organ, not enough that their bodies have – potentially – limitless ability for sexual performance2, women menstruate. If you have unprotected sex with them, women drip. And after that there is pregnancy with all its discharge, morning sickness, blocked sinuses, swelling middles and stress incontinence. There is labour with all the blood, faeces, vomit, amniotic fluid and 'show' – that nightmare combination of sneeze and nosebleed which makes its presence felt through jellied lumps sliding from woman's vulva just as she enters active labour. (Consider this a public service announcement for all expectant mothers. No-one ever tells you about 'show'.)

I apologise to any gentlemen who are now running for the smelling salts, but suffice to say all this unspeakable mess doesn't even take us to the baby, which (covered in meconium or otherwise), flops out, followed by a blue-white sinew of umblilical cord and a chunk of bloody yech that is the after birth. When that's all done, then comes the lactating: tits like Catwoman's, and the superpower of being able to shoot milk across a room, ruining five bras in half an hour.

Honestly, if you're beginning to sympathise with some of the more paranoid ramblings I encountered during my degree, I can see your point. You may sympathise with that old moderate, St Jerome, who got his head in such a twist over the idea of pregnant women that he had the urge to punch them in the bump.3 Or you may feel there was some grounding in the medical treatise that claimed women's menstruation was how they rid themselves of the impurities they got from congress with lepers.


Also, what?

We went pretty quickly from 'ugh, girl cooties' to 'fornicating with lepers'. What with the moral and social stigma attached Hansen's disease and extra-marital sex in that period, that's a pretty extreme explanation for a routine process of ejecting useless tissue.

But that's just it, isn't it? This discourse of leaky women who drip and bleed and gush plays very easily into a belief that women are leaky in their moral, as well as physical selves. After all, to the medieval imagination, women, were the agents of the fall. In the dichotomy of heaven/earth, king/state, head/body, women were very much supposed to occupy the latter position in each balance. This rhetoric is remarkably pervasive. Go to the right places, you'll still hear it today: “Just as Jesus is the head of the church, so the man is...”

God created mankind in his image. He created women in his image, as well. He just created them a bit different, a bit more bodily, a bit more earthy, a bit, well, leakier. So it stands to reason, doesn't it, that if something is bodily rather than spiritual, animal rather than civilised, 'faulty' rather that 'normative', it is simultaneously less male, less human. Indeed, it becomes female.

I promised you vampires, didn't I?

There are lots of ways this nasty little myth wriggles itself into our culture. There are lots of ways it played out in the medieval discourse that I'm not going into here. What's interesting me right at this minute is the way my passion number one (perceptions of gender, sexuality and marriage, particularly in the medieval and early modern period) has a curious intersection with what is probably passion number three.

Namely, vampires.

Yes, that's it. Sorry it took me so long.

What this is really all about is a vague trend I have noticed from reading far, far too many vampire novels: the later the narrative, the more likely it is that male vampires will be portrayed as attractive, as desirable, as sympathetic. A female vampire not only retains a more or less steady attractiveness over time, but is in fact far less likely to occur the later the narrative.

The folkloric vampire and its liminal state:

We don't really see vampires as bodily any more. No, don't start listing all the gruesome vampire films you've seen – if you're reading this, you're probably an expert and therefore don't count. Instead, go and ask an average seven year old what a vampire looks like. Because in this, post-Dracula world, most people's first impression of a vampire is essentially a smoothed down version of Bela Lugosi – male, adult, white.

We all know what a vampire looks like
The image is cartoonish in its ubiquity. It is a Hallowe'en caricature: smooth skin and slick hair. Its colour come in bold blocks and contrasts: white shirt, black jacket; white skin, red eyes; black cloak, red lining. Even the much maligned Robert Patterson/Edward Cullen look feeds into this photo-shopped perception of vampirism: hair in such rigid spikes it looks carved that way, skin with something of a lacquered finish, eyes a bright amber under manga-distinct brows. Vampires these days are not physical, they do not smear themselves across our consciousness. They are complete, discreet, self-contained. They have the same studied passivity of religious icons.

Vampires didn't used to be like that. They didn't even, in the words of a thousand internet warriors,used to be 'bad-ass'. No. Vampires used to be leaky.

They are spirits, characters, identities that cannot be contained within the useful boxes that society and morality would teach us. They are death leaking into life, sexual desire seeping into the virginal bed. They are a combination of hysterical grief and lust. The folkloric ghouls, squeezing bloated from their graves, dripping blood from rotting maws, crawling back to infect those they beloved with the miasma of death and they are leaky in the extreme. If it is better to marry than to burn, traditional vampires reminded people of the destructive power of desire which had no respect for the proper sacraments, for holy days, for the fact that marriage lasts only until death. Like corruption, like the pox, the vampires trickle in to any crack left in the vessel – any invitation, any little flaw in your armour of hygiene and righteousness.

Yes, newsflash, vampires are about sex. No, not only about sex, of course, but it plays a major part. They are about morality, about corruption, about disease. They are about damnation and sin. They were created in a culture that saw no clear distinction between spiritual, moral and physical cleanliness. What better way to reject one's spiritual nature than to remain on earth in physical form? What better way to spread damnation than to crawl from your grave and corrupt your spouse, your children, your family - those connected to them through bodily means.

As much as from medical ignorance, from fear of illness, the myth of the vampire arises from fears of intimacy, of the way an 'earthly' bond can override the moral strictures of community and faith. It has its foundation in the obsessive attachment that strictures of religion and custom are intended to contain. Vampires were unreasonable, unreasoning in their appetites. They put human interaction before the law of God.

In the head/body, male/female dichotomy, these are female flaws, female traits. Whatever their gender, vampires were codified as female, as the the body, and as such, they leak.

Friday, 16 May 2014

What I've been reading: The Bloody Chamber, Sandman, The Roses of Berlin, Dracula

Seriously, though. Isn't it beautiful?
How can any week be a cop out if it includes this?
This week is going to be a bit of a cop out.

Yeah, I read The Bloody Chamber, but it was probably for about the thirtieth time. It's not that I've said everything that I think about it, everything that I have to say about it elsewhere on this blog, it is simply that if I started doing so here I'd be stuck in front of my keyboard all day. Places to be! Books to read!

Still, there was a slight difference this time as I had subjected my poor book group to Angela Carter's fabulous short stories. Suffice to say we got a few converts to the cause and left a handful of people crying into their gin, or shaking their heads at my depravity. (Honestly, I love you chaps. Sorry if you didn't like it.) I consider my work there to be done, though, if only because one woman experienced the same ebullient glee reading Puss-in-Boots that it always give to me.

As to Dracula, well, I've only read until the end of chapter 5, because I'm reading it slightly ahead of real time on account of this. I should be done in October.

And I'm not going to review issue 2 of Sandman, Overture, because I want to finish the arc before I give a considered review of it. Or, you know, gush in a fangirly, obsessive fashion about its obvious superiority to everything.

So that basically leaves The Roses of Berlin, latest instalment in one of my other favourite comics, Moore and O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. When I read the first two arcs of this I got the impression that Moore and O'Neill were writing this for me - or at least, people significantly like me. With everything since The Black Dossier, I have become increasingly convinced that they are making these for no-one but themselves.
Isn't it wonderful when your partner brings you roses?

I don't actually have a problem with that.

Oh, it makes it harder to read, of course, but it also means that they are willing to go places, to do things, to please their own sense of artistry. O'Neill's art in the Nemo arc has been breathtaking, far too complex for a visual illiterate like myself to fathom without spending minutes studying each frame. The plots, perhaps, are simpler, the characters more broadly drawn, but the subtext, the implications of the stories, the moral dimension of them, becomes increasingly grey and complex. I have found myself uncomfortable with the level of violence in Nemo stories, with the motivations of the characters. Yet in the flawed world Janni Dakkar inhabits, still, I root for her more than anyone else. Why is that?

As to The Roses of Berlin, I'll need to read it a couple more times before I decide how I feel about it.Visual illiterate, remember? I've read a lot of bad reviews of it but, while I can't yell my love to the rooftops, I preferred it Heart of Ice.

I suppose I can't complete this review without saying mentioning Moore's refusal to bend to the Hollywood trope of, 'foreigners, when in private, prefer to speak in English'. Suffice to say: I respect his stance on this. It is far more authentic. I get it, I really do. But frankly, my German isn't up to the job and some subtitles might have been nice.

Friday, 9 May 2014

What I've been reading: Several Perceptions, Affinity, The Picture (and Confessions) of Dorian Gray

Not a big fan of these new covers
 There are some things in this world which become increasingly rare, some pleasures which one has a finite capacity to enjoy.

Angela Carter is one of those writers whom I wish I could delete from my memory so that I had the pleasure of discovering her work all over again - an impossibility which raises the question: what sort of person would I be had I not read Carter at a formative age?

Still, Several Perceptions was delicious. It was not what I would term 'greater Carter' - not Nights at the Circus, or Passion of a New Eve. It is a more realist work than these, resembling Love in both in its motifs and concerns, but it is a novel more tender, and, lacking Love's element of Grand Guignol, rather sharper, too. The miracles, the archetypes that you encounter, have something of the aggressive quality of Carter's critical writing, the edge of satire to them stronger than Love's more tortured protagonists can muster.

Once again, Carter proves her continued relevance to modern feminism, saying things that needed to be said then and have since been forgotten and thus need to be said again. As I would expect, it challenges the reader, a series of blows that unsettle, unsettle again, but there is an element of self-consciousness her later work lacks. The Carter of Several Perceptions does not draw you in, does not seduce you. There is something cold, a little defensive here.

The writing, it goes without saying, was sublime.

There, that's the required amount of fangirling done for the morning. Shall I do some overtime?

No, I shall be good. I did really love Sarah Water's Affinity, though. One of those fabulous books where I worked out exactly what was going on, but still read the last volume of the novel in about two hour's worth of bated breath intensity. Water's has a very special ability to bring late nineteenth century England - particularly London - to life, and she uses this formidable talent to tell queer stories that are compelling, compassionate and, if I'm honest, magical.

Affinity is the tale of the visits a grieving spinster makes to the women of Millbank prison and her growing 'affinity' with a spiritualist incarcerated for assault and fraud. It is part mystery, part romance. Not the least of its achievements is the fact that although the two main characters do nothing more than hold hands, it is one of the most sizzlingly sexy books I have read in a very long time.

Seriously, it was hot. Like, "I'm blushing as I read this because there are other people in the room," hot. It's Waters' knowingness that does this, her sly, careful invocation of modern sensibilities, of modern subtext. We know what's going on, even if the characters don't. And the characters... well, maybe they aren't so innocent of the implications, after all.

And that ending!


So, from a sizzling, scandalous book set in queer London at the end of the nineteenth century, I take you to a sizzling, scandalous book set in queer London at the end of the nineteenth century. It's not that I haven't read The Confessions of Dorian Gray before now - I just felt like doing it again.

I blame that Waters woman.

Naturally, a good friend on Twitter heard my complaints about my old, first year annotated 'Penguin £1 Classics' edition and pointed me in the direction of this (Amazon link), and suffice to say I want, I want, I want. Still, impressions.

What surprised me most was how boyish Gray seems, and not just in the early part of the novel. He is forever throwing himself down on divans, turning his back, stamping his metaphorical foot. It is not simply his body which is preserved in the first flush of the twenties, his character remains self-centred, passionate, thoughtlessly cruel.

And just as he does not age, does not grow, nor does he ever self define. He remains so very malleable, a conduit for Wooton's words, Hallward's art. In the first and second chapter, all they do is give him orders. Their power over him remains - stay still, Dorian, think this, Dorian. Be beautiful. Make your life art. So he does, of course, and in doing so he simply becomes a mode of expression for others.

Does that absolve him, to some extent?

More interesting: can he change? Can he redeem himself?

And so I will stray away from books, because I've spent a lot of time lately listening to a lot of Big Finish's The Confessions of Dorian Gray.

And doesn't he just look the part?
If you chaps don't know who Big Finish are, they are the guys who do the Doctor Who audios, one of the spin-offs from the show that kept dedicated fans happy between the '96 movie and the 2005's Rose. Since the airing of Night of the Doctor they are canon. At their best, they are also sublime.

Big Finish also make a number audio adventures based upon other cult TV shows, literary characters and occasionally just some stunning original drama. The Confessions of Dorian Gray is, of course, their take on the novel I have just reread.

I was a little dubious about these dramas. The character of Dorian has such cultural cachet with a certain class of young person, among whom I am willing to number myself. How quickly will sensationalism have its sway? How much is going to be 'immortal Dorian' fanwank?

Well, the jury's out, I'm afraid. The dialogue is fantastic - sharp, witty and with some wonderfully underhand references to the novel. Gray is played to near-enough perfection by Alexander Vlahos - who captures that pettish allure that makes Dorian so attractive, so dangerous. But the quality of the stories varies, perhaps too greatly.  

Generally it is a wonderful, sexy horror romp through recent history, The Houses In Between getting honourable mention for being legitimately terrifying, but it veers too much towards the 'eldritch horror being dismissed by Dorian talking at it angrily' that seems a repeated motif in the series. The set-up, the characters, are perfect - the plotting too often a disappointment. There are a few mawkish, bum-notes (especially the last episode in the second season, which... I won't even), but there were also some triumphs where the actual possibilities of Dorian as a character - both psychological and narratively - were pushed. If you get a chance, listen to The Fallen King of Britain as it's fantastic - if a little insistent in its morality.

My only other complaint is that some of the writers appear to be working under the assumption Dorian is gay, which is unfortunate as he is one of the more famous bisexual literary characters we have. Still, whether or not that gives us a good name is another question entirely, of course.

Right, that's it. I've written way too much for one morning. Have a good week's reading!

Friday, 2 May 2014

What I've been reading: Wicked and various short stories.

Ugh. Soooo many vampire stories.

For various reasons of a masochistic stripe I have read every vampire short story in my possession that I don't know more-or-less by heart already, and a few that I can get for nowt online. I have done this regardless of whether they are any good or not. Naturally, being the ones I have read less often, they tend to be somewhat less inspiring. Still, a few treats were to be found, foremost The Drifting Snow, which was an unexpected delight - especially as it was written by the much maligned August Derleth.

Anyway, more about vampires later. Is that a what? A threat? A promise?

On a related note, if you see a copy of this book second-hand,  it's probably worth your coin for the Saki story alone. Still, I maintain it displays considerable cheek to call adoorstop sized collection 'GREATEST VAMPIRES' and only have about seven vampire stories in the whole volume. Technically the title is Greatest Vampires and other horrors but that last part is in teeny tiny, near illegible font, so the point stands. Some fab ghost stories in there, though, and as I found my copy in a recycling box, I can hardly complain.

Speaking of 'other horrors', Gregory Maguire's Wicked is an incredibly ruthless book, far more so than I'd expect from the hype surrounding the musical, and something of a shock to a person who only has faint memories of The Wizard of Oz. While it isn't an entirely consistent novel, which I've come to expect from works which cover such a long timespan, it is enjoyable throughout. I would say the middle of the book is the best, possessing a page turning intensity and a fine irony in the telling. The beginning is rather slow, though, and the ending felt somewhat forced and hurried. The reason for this is probably lie in the fact that Wicked is derivative fiction, and was thereby constrained by the events and timespan of The Wizard of Oz.

Quite compelling.
Most effective was Maguire's early stance that Elphaba should not receive inferiority, and the book suffered when he backed down on that. The impression that she is an utter enigma is so heavily played upon throughout the novel that by the time she takes the 'narration' Maguire seems unwilling to undermine that by giving his readers to many answers. To me, at least, this made her actions seem disjointed, her actions inexplicable even to herself. Of course, with her so isolated at the novel's end, it would have been hard to reframe the narrative in terms of another's viewpoint, but to do so successfully would have been all the more effective because of that.

So, flawed and a little unsatisfactory, but it was haunting. While I'm not convinced of it as a portrait of causes and complications of the Wicked Witch's wickedness, it was a solidly enjoyable read, offering a very approachable exploration of prejudice, privilege, historical blindness and the slow encroachment of intolerance. Maybe I will watch that musical after all.