Friday, 8 August 2014

What I've been reading: Angelmaker, Three Supernatural Classics, The Scarlet Pimpernell

You know, I'm not sure if I've ever read any Algernon Blackwood before - which is a little odd, given that I spent most of my youth and early adolescence reading ghost stories. What I have certainly never done before is had to go grovelling to library to tell them I ruined one of the books.

 I am mortified. 

Suffice to say that a very windy day and a child stuck in deep mud at a beach have ruined the habit of a lifetime, and, more importantly, my local library's copy of Three Supernatural Tales.

But it isn't the outside of a book that matters, *bites fist and moans softly* it's the words in it that make the difference. So, before I die of shame, our supernatural tales ; The Willows, The Wendigo and The Watcher. Of these, The Watcher was easily my favourite. Not to disparage Blackwood's ingenuity in creating less usual supernatural threats, it was the only 'proper' ghost story of the three, with a mystery to be solved based upon the lives of the unquiet dead and a threat to be averted. The denouement was a little weak, but the suspense, the sense of growing madness, the shaking passion of the narrative was utterly compelling. Good work.

The Willows and The Wendigo were far more ambitious, and while beautifully realised (and more narratively satisfying, in terms of explanations) they left me a little cold. Both these stories felt very Lovecraftian in the way that the supernatural threat was inhuman and implacable, primal and horrific. Yet while I found Blackwood a far better writer than Lovecraft (don't shoot!), and his approach rather more literary, there was a sense of missed opportunity. While our dear H.P never lets a moment slip in terms screaming horror (sometimes at the expense of style or clarity) Blackwood has a tendency to undercut his most effectively chilling writing with explanation of that fear. And while his literariness gives him greater scope for exploring the more philosophical aspects of abject terror at the universe, the sense of internal drama in his characters was lacking; we heard that they were distressed, but got no sense of it. In a genre so empathetic as the supernatural story, this is something of a short-coming - and a sadness, as it was a technique at which he excelled in The Listener.

Still, definitely worth a look for fans of the genre.

For a more open-hearted commendation, if you're looking for a holiday read,the only problem with Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker is that you may get so caught up that you forget to do ordinary holiday things like eat ice cream, swim in the sea, or play cricket.
Isn't that just a beautiful cover?

Seriously, my kids got so pissed off with me.

It's a clever book, with characters you genuinely care about, and a real light touch for poignant details. Never mawkish, or sentimental, it is perfectly balanced - like a skilfully made clock. And it's compulsive. A wild ride that flirts with steam-punk and political commentary while never losing the core value of just being a huge amount of fun. Yeah, fun. Look, it isn't the best book I've read this year, but it was beautiful, witty and entertaining. It was gut-wrenching, it was sexy, it was intelligent... and it had a bi-sexual, cross-dressing super-spy. And frankly, that should be enough for anyone.

And talking about bi-sexual, cross dressing superspies.... Except that, outside my headcanon, there is absolutely no evidence that Percy Blakeney batted for both teams. *Sigh*. Still, hot on the tail of The Count of Monte Cristo, I was in the mood for a rather more slushy and anglo-centric rip-roaring adventure narrative, which sent me back into the pages of my beloved The Scarlet Pimpernell.

Look, I could write an essay about everything that is wrong with this book, but I don't want to, so I shan't.

Instead, I'll say that what always interests me about film and stage adaptations of this novel is that Percy's mode of dress becomes part of his ploy- he acts like a brainless dandy, and to do so, he must dress like one. In the novel, he just likes dressing that way. Being daring enigmatic, intelligent and heroic does not preclude on looking fabulous. 

So there.

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