Monday, 17 December 2018

Review: The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange School

Yes. Yesssssssssssss.

Oh, my blog was having its hiatus when the last one of these came out. The one where I bought half a dozen copies, gave them to all of my friends for Christmas and went, "Look, look! IT'S US!"

So: Did you go to a single sex school? Did you fucking hate it? Or, did you love it, but find yourself the 'red headed stepchild' all the same? Are you still mates with some of the weirdos you met there?
Okay. You need to read Drearcliff Grange. 

How to describe this? Superpowers and eldritch abominations at St Trinians? Rip-roaring adventures, jolly hockeysticks, defeating facism, and overcooked swede? These books are nuts and it's fucking marvellous. Newman is the King of Pastiche and he owns this totally.

I need to calm down.

The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange School is the second in the Drearcliff series, and expands both the world and the themes that Newman developed in the first novel. It suffers a little from being a transitional piece between the self-contained first book, and the wider series - but it is still an immensely satisfying read. Moreover, Newman addresses that aspect of it thematically, taking Amy, Frecks, Kali, and Emma from the plucky girlhood and simple moralities of The Mysteries... to a adolescence, and a reappraisal of what it is to be a hero.

Certainties are challenged, characters change, and we explore the awkward ground between the broken and the malevolent, balance law agaisnt lawlessness, explore the dangers of privilege, the worth of trust, and the harm that can be done by the simplest of actions. At the heart of the novel is Amy, whose role as the benevolent Kentish Glory is reconsidered as she wonders if she might not do better as the more terrible Death's Head Hawkmoth.

Of course, its all terribly referential, both to adjacent literary worlds and Newman's other works, but that's all part of the fun. If that isn't your sort of thing then... honestly, you might want to find another book review blog.

More seriously, Newman's great strength as a writer is that he manages to drop every name under the sun without ever detracting from the story he is telling at that moment, and this book carries off that trick admirably. An absolute joy.

I loved it so much, I did cosplay.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Review: Domini Mortum by Paul Holbrook

Let's keep things ghastly here for a while.... Paul Holbrooks Domini Mortum whisks us off to the smoggy streets of Victorian London, where misanthropic Samuel Weaver is sketching the dismembered bodies of murder victims for The Illustrated Police News.

I mean, I'll let you make your own content notes, here - just be sure to cast a broad net. This is genuine old-school horror, full of apparitions, murder, mayhem, and gallons of gore. Sharp, funny, really quite upsetting in places, this a really satisfying novel for those who like things on the darker side.

Samuel is, as they say, a piece of work. Talented, arrogant, blockheaded, he blunders through his investigations following both a trail of mutilated bodies and his fixation on the cannibal serial killer, Sibelius Darke.Twists, turns, conspiracies, madnesses and god so many murders take the reader through a plot of high melodrama and human depravity, while Samuel himself is brought to understand several terrible truths.

Honestly, it's a great read.
<<light spoilers from this point out>>

Awful as Weaver might be, I rapidly became rather fond of him and he is cordially invited to take his place in my collection of trashy murder-boys. Part of this was because of the way the central plot was contrasted with flash back sections of Weaver's home life and upbringing in York - with his priest father, doting if neglected mother, and his early taste for the chaotic and the macabre. I don't know what it says about me, but while I seldom read realist historical fiction, if you weave a lot of period-appropriate family drama and social commentary in to a horror novel and that will be my favourite bit.

Similarly, I found myself struck far more the social interactions and class consciousness of the characters than the actual rip-roaring chases through London, and the dismembered bodies - but I think that actually stands testament more to Holbrook's skill in conveying the rich and painstaking he has done (and my own weird way of engaging with things) than it does to any deficiency on the part of the plot. In fact, the world that Holbrook presents is wonderfully realised - he crates a real, tangiable sense of a specific historical moment that transcends the genre expectations 'London Smog.'

If I had a complaint, however, it would be that the final third of the book does not stand up to the promise of the set-up. The scale, scope, and violence evoked in the early part of the novel make what is objectively a very creepy and unsettling ending seem a little anticlimactic. I'm aware this is the second book in the series, and that Holbrook may indeed resume the narrative at some point, but personally feel that had the events of the denoumont been given more space to breathe, then both the narrative complexity and personal intensity could have been kept to the same pitch they'd had throughout and given the twist ending more power.

All in all, however, this is a bloody good book (pun intended) and great fun to read.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Review: Uncle Silas, Sheridan le Fanu

So... owning up time. Who else always gets this one confused with Silas Marner?

Just me? Good good.

Right, I picked this one up in the secondhand bookshop, knowing nothing more about it that it was apparently a Gothic, and it was written by the same guy who did Carmilla. It was pretty much what you'd expect. Heiresses! Crumbling stately homes! Evil plots! Laudanum! Trains!

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed this one, but struggled to take it particularly seriously. It was quite predictable, and like many Romances of Terror, if you look at things from a plot perspective, it didn't really deliver on many of its promises.

That said, there are a few things to be said for it - firstly, Silas Ruthyn himself is one heck of dish. Quite the silver fox, much prone to dabbing his temples with cologne and sighing about all the bungling fuckwits by whom he has the misfortune to be surrounded. Honestly, from a slightly biased perspective, I would say the character was wasted and we could have done with a lot more of him - but then I have a type.

Secondly, and because this is a respectable literary blog (I say, as you all collapse in to laughter) I was quite taken with Le Fanu's clarity and precision. Uncle Silas is what happens when Northanger Abbey meets Udolpho  - Le Fanu recongises that county men and respectable countries are as full of rogues and abusers as the most fantastical stories, it is only that the villains must comport themselves more carefully. The blending of modernity - at least, for the time of writing - and isolation was really powerful. Rather than Stoker's triumphalist use of technology, the railway in Uncle Silas simply makes the world feel smaller, more limited. It offers no escape to our protagonist, only faster transport for her persecutors.

Le Fanu also came through in his fairness both to young female characters, and female friendship. Barring Silas himself, and Dr Bryerly, the male characters we encounter are relatively anodyne. For all the men drive the plot,  they are not a patch on the vividness of Milly, Meg, or even Madame de la Rougierre - who may not actually do much, but who remain with you. Milly and Maud's friendship, especially, was delightful to read.

I won't mince words - Maud Ruthyn herself is something of a drip. She does not have the poise or intelligence of Carmilla's narrator, and occasionally I wanted to smack her across the side of the head, but even still, Le Fanu is fair to her. She is shown to grow over the course of the novel, and her adult commentary on her youthful follies are quite incisive. Despite all her silliness, she is never treated as a joke, or deserving of suffering - yet neither is her lack of worldliness of common-bloody-sense held up some sort of unrealistic paradigm of virtue. She's immature - that's all.

I like that about Le Fanu - while I might not agree with everything he writes about gender, he didn't hate teenage girls.
 Naturally, it was written in the 1860s, so warnings apply for all the usual 'hilarious' and 'shifty' bumpkins, virulent antisemitism, fetishing of Romany culture, and 'sinister foriegners'. I do so wish they wouldn't.

But, aside from that, an absolutely fine Gothic novel. Better than Udolpho, although that isn't difficult.