Archive for February, 2012

February 27, 2012

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals

I read The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals on a train to Amritsar, and wrote most of this piece in my hotel room later that day. Short version – it is very silly and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

A version of the piece below appeared in the Left of Cool column in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian.



According to a wise man, from the beginning of time mankind has had two basic questions when confronted with something new. “Can we eat it?” and “Can we have sex with it?”

Bestiaries have existed for centuries. They describe various exotic animals, both real and imaginary, often completely erasing the line between the two. Early bestiaries were not scientifically rigourous; they relied on rumours of rumours of hearsay. They gave us the manticore, the unicorn, the bonnacon (a bison-like creature that defended itself with explosive, projectile faeces). But while a worrying number of bestiaries addressed themselves to the second of the questions posed above, few tackled the first.

Indians are familiar with a variety of traditions of what is and is not edible. Does it contain onions or garlic? Is it halal? Is it wrong to eat beef if it originated from a foreign cow? In The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, Ann Vandermeer sets out to discover whether or not a selection of fantastic beasts are fit for the consumption of a practising Jew. It turns out that this question is less simple than it appears.

For example, what of those chimerical creatures made up of parts of more than one animal? If a part of the animal is kosher, does that extend to the whole? Does the reverse apply? Clearly one cannot contemplate eating a mermaid, but what about her fishy tail? Chickens are kosher, but does that mean that the cannibalistic Pollo Maligno, found in Colombia, is allowable despite its predatory, cannibalistic instincts? And what does ‘cannibal’ even mean here; does this chicken feed off other chickens or off humans? And if the former, shouldn’t those chickenesque abominations that we’re told go into fast food be non-Kosher as well? At the end of the world the righteous will apparently feast on the great beasts of the sea, land and air (respectively Leviathan, Behemoth and Ziz), but does this mean that those creatures are kosher only in the case of an apocalypse? Are angels kosher (or even imaginary), and what sort of terrible person would want to eat one in the first place? Theology is a deeply complex matter.

These weighty issues are rendered accessible by the format of the book. In the tradition of Socrates, these philosophical debates take the form of dialogues between Vandermeer herself and “Evil Monkey”, the blogging alter-ego of her husband Jeff. The Evil Monkey persona seems to know very little about the subject and acts as something of a foil for Vandermeer’s own persuasive arguments to educate the reader.

Frequently Vandermeer cites other authorities, including Dr Jorge Luis Borges, author of that great scholarly work The Book of Imaginary Beings. Or Thackeray T. Lambshead, compiler of a guide to eccentric and discredited diseases. Towards the end of the book another expert is called upon; Duff Goldman, the star of a cooking-based reality TV show. Goldman gives us his opinion on how these creatures are to be cooked, if they are to be cooked at all. From him we learn that the Mongolian Death Worm might make a delicious sushi; that Tribbles, seen in the Star Trek universe, are probably kosher (I have my doubts) and definitely tender; that while it would be predictable and dull to prepare H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu as calamari, he’d be perfect broiled, garnished, and served with a sweet white wine.

One of the best things about The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is that it does not confine itself to traditional creatures of myth, showing a far more global, inclusive approach. So we see the Japanese Abumi-Guchi (not kosher), the Tokoloshe of Zulu myth (not kosher) and the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary (kosher, and frequently seen by Welshmen on their way back from the pub). Occasionally Evil Monkey’s flippant comments detract from the tone of what is otherwise a serious theological work, but despite this occasional lapse The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is a thoughtful analysis of religious dilemmas that may be far from imaginary.



February 25, 2012

Stella Gibbons, Starlight

This was posted at Global Comment a couple of weeks ago. I’ve noticed that Starlight has been less widely reviewed than Westwood, the other recent Gibbons reissue. I’m not sure whether this is because it’s less well-known (perhaps the Lynne Truss connection gives Westwood the advantage?) or because it is simply so strange that no one knows quite what to do with it. To make things stranger, while Cold Comfort Farm was published in 1932 and Westwood in 1946, Starlight is from 1967 and is one of the last books Gibbons ever wrote. Characters in Starlight quote C.S. Lewis as if he were the sort of well-known author Gibbons could expect her readers to know. It’s a bit disorienting.



Stella Gibbons is best known for 1932’s Cold Comfort Farm, a sublimely comic novel that satirised the grim, rural works of writers like Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith. Cold Comfort Farm is considered a classic, but its popularity has overshadowed Gibbons’ literary career. While she went on to write close to thirty novels, until recently most of these were unavailable and out of print.

Over the last year, however, Vintage have begun to publish Gibbons’ missing back catalogue. Westwood, Starlight, and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm have all been reissued, and there is the promise of more work by Gibbons to come. Of the three books republished thus far, Starlight is the latest (it was published in 1967) and in some ways shows the biggest divergence from the author’s most famous work.

A pair of joined cottages in a run-down part of London is bought by a new landlord. Most of the tenants move out, leaving only those who have nowhere else to go. These are the elderly Barnes sisters, Gladys and Annie, and Lancelot Fisher, the old man who lives in the attic and changes his name every month. But the new landlord is not the exploitative figure they have feared. Mr Pearson has bought Rose and Lily Cottages on the whim of his wife, who suffers from an unspecified illness. The flats are renovated and repainted, rents are not raised, and Mrs Pearson is installed in the newly pink-and-gold Lily Cottage.

For much of the book, Starlight is entirely domestic. A great deal of the novel is devoted to interactions between the residents of Rose Cottage and the local vicar and curate, the latter of whom is particularly bewildered by Gladys’ constant chatter. Gibbons’ insistence on showing class difference through accent is sometimes unfortunate, but these sections still provide humour of a sort that is directed as much at the public-school-educated curate as it is at the garroulous old woman.

The Pearsons seem entirely normal. He is the devoted but often crude husband; she is the fragile wife with a passing interest in the occult. Mrs Pearson’s greatest worry seems to be her distant relationship with her daughter, Peggy. Peggy works as a companion (and dog-sitter) to a rich woman, fending off the advances of the middle-aged son of the house on a regular basis. She has a secret sorrow but even that, when revealed, is found to be mundane.

“Mundane” is not a perjorative here. One of Gibbons’ great strengths is an ability to take the utterly ordinary concerns of normal people and find a gentle humour in them without ever trivialising them. And so we feel for the socially inept curate as we do for the awkward teenaged girl who is Mrs Pearson’s protégée. We understand Annie’s fears and Peggy’s doomed love affair is no less tragic for being ordinary.

It is with the introduction of Mrs Pearson that the reader gets the first sign that all is not entirely as it seems. From the first description of her there is something sinister about her illness.

The word death breathed chillingly from some cave in a mind so stuffed with cosy things that there was barely room for it. As she said afterwards to her sister, ‘That was what she put me in mind of – death. Poor soul, I thought.’ Yet – it was not only death.

As anyone who has read the back cover of the book will already know, Gladys and Annie soon begin to think that there is something sinister about Mrs Pearson. Yet everything about the kind of book that Starlight has signalled itself to be suggests that these fears will prove to have a rational (and possibly comical) solution. But there is a gradual unfolding of Mrs Pearson’s various oddities. Her hatred of the church bells ringing; her desire to “touch the pavements with my feet” (again and again the text draws our attention to the oddity of this phrasing). The book begins to refer to “the thing” behind Mrs Pearson’s eyes as a separate entity to the woman herself. Eventually the reader has no choice but to admit it; despite all evidence to the contrary, Starlight is a novel about demonic possession.

It’s even more bewildering that, having made this revelation, Gibbons feels no apparent need to dwell upon it. The book continues to pay as much attention to Peggy’s romantic life (and how is it that her mother’s being a tool of dark forces occupies her mind so little?) and to the oddities of Mr Fisher as it does to the supernatural drama taking place inside Lily Cottage. It’s hard to tell to what extent the sections dealing with the thing inside Mrs Pearson and its exorcism are meant to be scary – the juxtaposition with the pink and gold house and its inhabitants is sometimes effective, sometimes ludicrous.

After that great moment of genre-instability, though, nothing seems quite as safe. And suddenly it seems the text is throwing up all sorts of minor instances of weirdness as if to keep reminding us that we have no way of knowing what Gibbons is likely to do next. What, for example, are we to make of this short paragraph in which the universe of the novel seems to have shifted to that of A Clockwork Orange?

As she drew near to the cottages, midnight was striking from the steeple among the crowded television masts on the old roofs.

She ran the last hundred yards, keeping in the shadow of the ruinous doorways to avoid a group of boys that was attacking, almost silently, a man at the end of the Walk. She waited until they were all concentrated over his fallen body, kicking and smiting in hushed fury, then shot lightly past, on the other side of the street and gained her own front door.

We are never told why gangs of murderous boys are roaming the streets. None of the characters seems surprised when their actions lead to death.

It makes no sense that this book should exist, thus suspended between comedy and melodrama, horror and domesticity and theological fiction. But it does, somehow, and it is utterly weird, and it is bewilderingly good.



February 23, 2012

What is it like to be a dragon?

It is probably not news to anyone by now that the new My Little Pony cartoons are quite good. Unfortunately it is probably also not news to anyone who has spent more than a minute thinking about it that they have problems, particularly with regard to how they deal with race. Because despite this being a series in which the main character is purple and her friends come in all the shades of the rainbow, ethnicity does exist in Equestria. We see it in an episode where the sole zebra character (not a pony, note) is signalled as being African. We see it again in the episode Over a Barrel, in which the ponies come into conflict with the buffaloes who are obvious Native American/First Nations analogues (in this as well as other episodes of the series the history the ponies are given is of the settler/pioneer variety). I find the show’s apparent comfort with that tradition a little bizarre – presumably at some point someone gave a thought to how the race thing worked within the show’s universe? Besides the obvious offensiveness it seems incredibly naive.

Children’s books/tv with talking animals tend to anthropomorphise unevenly. Pets and food in particular often don’t get a voice – everyone knows pets don’t speak, and food that did so would be creepy.  Goofy can talk, Pluto cannot; Noddy and Miffy are friends with bears, monkeys, and pigs but Bumpy Dog and Snuffy only bark. In the MLP universe, the cows, buffalo, donkeys, griffins and dragons all talk; the animals the ponies keep as pets (an owl, a cat, a tortoise who humiliates himself considerably for Rainbow Dash’s company, a rabbit, etc) do not.

Speech is important here because in a fantasy world with multiple sentient species in it I suspect the ability of a species to communicate becomes at least in part the arbiter of what personhood entails. So the buffalo are people in a way that Owloysius the owl (despite being excellent and an owl) isn’t.

My Little Pony does quite a bit of playing around with language, as is evident from the episode titles, the flood of horse-puns and cities like “Fillydelphia” and “Canterlot”. One of the things the show does is to insert the word “pony” into a number of words and phrases, such as “everypony”. “Pony” is thus used to replace “body” or “person”. I’d been bothered by this for some time, but in the most recent episode (“A Friend in Deed”) I particularly noticed that non-Pony characters, a pair of donkeys, were using “everypony” as well.

And so Spike the dragon, Cranky Doodle Donkey and other characters live in a world and communicate in a language in which personhood is literally defined as something that they are not. The idea that a person and a pony are the same seems to be at the heart of the language. And going by the racial stereotyping I mention above, if the Native Americans are buffalo-not-ponies and the African immigrants are zebras-not-ponies, it seems heavily implied that personhood in Equestria is limited to what in this world would be the white settlers.

February 22, 2012

Shiny things that people might like to own

While at Comic Con India (distinguished from all other comics conventions by being a place where you can also buy saris, momos and kahwa) I found myself joining Deepa D in an attempt to find exciting things to auction for Con or Bust - a venture fraught with peril as we negotiated small children singing the Chhota Bheem theme song, a Superman who had neglected to wear underpants either underneath or on top of his costume, and the like.


Deepa has posted to the community with all the loot thus obtained. Here is a collection of comics and graphic novels – for those of you who know him, the lettering for Auto Pilot was done by Aditya Bidikar.

But the lovely people at Blaft provided these copies of the hilarious Kumari Loves a Monster. And (I may have screamed a little) this amazing, beautiful thing.


Other exciting objects related to science fiction and the world outside the UK and the USA – the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards are having a fund drive, and they have a bunch of very shiny books as prizes. The list is here.

February 15, 2012

Happy Families

For various reasons I’ve found myself rereading Enid Blyton’s “R” mystery series over the past couple of months. The “R” Mysteries feature (as is usual in Blyton) a group of children, three of whom are cousins, stumbling upon crimes and assisting in the solving of them while having many picnics and amusing pets – in this case a hyperactive spaniel and a trained monkey. The monkey belongs to Barney, the fourth child who is unrelated to the others. Barney grew up in a circus, doesn’t know who his father is, and is homeless for most of the series. The reader is given a bit of backstory (in The Rockingdown Mystery in particular): His mother apparently married an actor (Shakespearean, therefore respectable) but soon ran away from him because she missed circus life. In The Rub-a-Dub Mystery we’re told by a character who knew her that her reason for leaving was the unkindness shown to her by her new mother-in-law.

We’re told at various points in the series about Barney’s yearning for family and a sense of belonging (these books always feel to me a lot more interior than a lot of Blyton’s fiction). We’re not told how he reacts to the news that the family he seeks consists of the woman who drove his mother away and the man who let this happen.*

Another of Blyton’s orphans is Fenella in Come to the Circus! Fenella lives quite happily with an aunt at the beginning of the book, but is soon forced to move in with another uncle and aunt instead. Why? Well:

“Well, Fenella—I’m going to be married,” said Aunt Janet. “And I’m going out to Canada.”

“Oh, Aunt Janet!” said Fenella. “To Canada! That’s along way, isn’t it—far across the sea?  Shall we like that?”

I shall,” said Aunt Janet. “I’ve been there before. But you’re not going, Fenella. I’m going to marry Mr. White— you’ve seen him here sometimes—and he wants us to go and work on his uncle’s farm in Canada. But we’re afraid we must leave you behind.”

“Leave me behind—here, all alone!” cried Fenella in alarm. “But what shall I do? I’m only ten.” […]

“Oh, you’ll soon learn to like animals,” said Aunt Janet, emptying the dirty potato water out of the bowl. “Anyway, there’s no help for it, I’m afraid. You’ve got to go somewhere —and Harry—that’s Mr. White I’m going to marry—he doesn’t want to take you out to Canada with us.”

“Nobody wants me!” wailed Fenella, suddenly. “My father and mother are dead, and you don’t want me, and I know Uncle and Aunt won’t want me either.”

“Now, don’t be silly,” said Aunt Janet, briskly.

Beyond this one instance of Fenella’s voicing her pain and having it brushed aside (“don’t be silly”? What the fuck, Aunt Janet?) there’s no sense that a child might feel rejected or otherwise damaged by this sort of breezy “oh, we don’t want you anymore”.

Then there’s The Secret Island in which three siblings are mistreated by their aunt and uncle, who pull them out of school to turn them into unpaid labour. But this is seen by characters within the text as an outrage, and the couple are punished at the end. Far more interesting is the case of Jack, the children’s friend, who lives with his grandfather. Jack is able to escape with the others because his grandfather is about to abandon him anyway (“He’s talking of going to live with an aunt of mine. If he does I shall be left all alone, for she won’t have me too”). Again, this isn’t treated as in any way remarkable by the text – merely a convenient fact that makes Jack available to the others.

Back to Barney, who at the end of The Rub-a-Dub Mystery finds his father. The next book in the series (The Rat-a-tat Mystery) has the whole group visit Barney’s new home, where he seems to be on excellent terms with his grandmother. Voluntarily leaving aside Blyton’s bad track record on continuity for the moment (and fair enough, she wrote a million books a year), what could be going on here? Is this Barney’s forgiving nature? Has he investigated the circumstances in which his parents separated and decided it was all just a big misunderstanding/his mother was equally in the wrong? Or has Barney chosen not to think about it; is he so desperate for a family that he has forced himself to forget why he lost his in the first place?

Victor Watson in his excellent Reading Series Fiction reads Blyton as being entirely on the children’s side. He cites passages like this one, from the first Famous Five book:

“Julian thought she didn’t understand grown-ups very well. It wasn’t a bit of good fighting grown-ups. They could do exactly as they liked. If they wanted to take away George’s island and castle, they could. If they wanted to sell it, they could!”

Watson reads the first six Famous Five books as in part documenting the relationship between George and the father whom she loves but who is, at least at the beginning, fundamentally untrustworthy in the ways that matter:

The four children stared at him and didn’t answer. They couldn’t very well say, “Well, firstly, you wouldn’t have believed us. Secondly, you are bad-tempered and unjust and we are frightened of you. Thirdly, we didn’t trust you enough to do the right thing.” (- Five on a Treasure Island)

Obviously this tendency of the adults to get things horribly wrong or simply to disappear from the children’s lives is in part a device to allow the children to become the movers of the plot; absent or incompetent adults are to be found all over children’s literature.

But it’s tempting to read Blyton as, rather than the comfortable “nanny narrator” as which she is often perceived, a chronicler of a harsh, (hopefully) alternative universe. One in which adults regularly abandon children, or abuse them and those they love, and the children will accept this without protest or even surprise because it’s normal, it’s expected, and they are so starved for love and family. A week or so ago I wrote about my former perception of Dickens as a writer of virtuous orphans in a cruel world. But even when Dickens does this, he and the text make it clear that this is an outrage. Blyton’s brilliance lies in the fact that she normalises this, even at the level of the text. I imagine Barney at the breakfast table each morning facing his grandmother and father and smiling, gritting his teeth and telling himself to forget.



* There’s another possibility – this version of the story was told to Barney’s friend Snubby, who may have chosen to conceal it from him. Snubby never seems surprised or uncomfortable at Barney’s comfortable relationship with his newfound family; but then, as another orphan (albeit one with an extended family) Snubby knows what’s at stake.

February 12, 2012

Kuzhali Manickavel, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies

I bought Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some Of Them Have Wings before I’d heard of Kuzhali Manickavel or Blaft Publications, purely on the strength of the title and cover. Since then I’ve grown rather evangelical about both author and publisher. Blaft published this e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story a few months ago and it was, unsurprisingly, excellent.

I wrote about Eating Sugar, Telling Lies for my Left of Cool column last weekend.


How long should a piece of writing be? At what point does flash fiction cross into short story into novelette into novella into novel? And how big does a book have to be before it is split into two volumes? There are approximate answers to some of these questions (mostly of the “I know it when I see it” variety); some are simply a question of categorising things for ourselves. Yet others are the result of the material limitations of creating books – what size of page is easiest to hold, shelf, and pack; how many pages it is practical to print at one time; what amount of paper can be securely bound.

If there’s one thing the internet has reinforced for us it’s that a piece of writing doesn’t need to achieve a minimum word count to be a complete work in itself. So you have writers turning even to twitter for their medium – Teju Cole, the author of Open City, works wonders within 140 characters. And it is possible now to buy works in electronic format that would never have made it through the practicalities of the printing side of publishing.

Kuzhali Manickavel’s debut collection of short stories, Insects Are Just Like You And Me Except Some of Them Have Wings, was published by Blaft a few years ago. Manickavel’s stories are often structurally experimental, usually dark and occasionally very funny. But she continued to work mainly with the short story form. Unless she were to write another themed collection, it seemed that those of us who admired her work would have to keep seeking her out in various short fiction magazines (and on her wonderful, infrequently-updated blog).

But then ebooks became a viable way to publish short fiction, and in 2011 Blaft published an e-chapbook of a new Manickavel story, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies. This odd little piece is set in Tamil Nadu, in a house that seems so big that its own inhabitants don’t seem quite sure what it contains. Secret stashes of Doritos or dead bodies could pop up in the next room.The maidservant appears to have abandoned her job, and her employers speculate over why. The narrator is one of these; her companions known only as “the Family Cataract” and “Gorgeous George”.  Various middle-class clichés about the behaviour and motivations of servants are deployed (they will steal anything, they like to be patronised by their employers) to explain the absence of “The Thieving WhoreQueen”, the only name by which The Family Cataract knows her. The truth turns out to be quite different.

Eating Sugar, Telling Lies is an uncomfortable fable about class and gender and the things we choose to look away from, and one which is far more complex than its length gives it any right to be. The Family Cataract cannot be bothered to learn the names of her servants and parrots various banalities about the tendencies of “these people” but she is also the one most strongly affected by the terrible discovery they make. The female characters make it clear that they know the threat of sexual violence, but they tolerate and have long friendships with GorgeousGeorge who claims to have had sex with a fourteen-year-old servant girl last year. The narrator herself seems the most sympathetic of the characters until the very last line of the piece. The tangled, contradictory and deeply dysfunctional set of relationships that these characters have to class, to sex, to each other and to themselves is revealed for the mess that it is. Set against all of this, the child’s voice reciting the nursery rhyme in the title (and there again, you’re forced to think about the English language and the implications of power it contains) is a brilliant, perverse contrast.

Jonathan Franzen was widely quoted this past week for suggesting that ebooks are damaging society. Franzen is entitled to his opinion, but when the existence of ebooks allows for the existence of brilliant, bitter pieces of work like this one? I think it’s very clear that he’s wrong.


February 8, 2012

and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.

Yesterday was Dickens’ 200th birth anniversary and all over the internet (on twitter “Charles Dickens” was trending worldwide alongside “There is a Penis”) people were trying to explain what it is about his work that makes it so amazing. I will inevitably fail to do this.

I spent a lot of my life disliking Dickens. I read David Copperfield and Oliver Twist when I was too young to see them as anything other than bildungsromans about virtuous boys and people with funny names. During my teens I read Dickens as a writer of not very good realist novels. I had to read Hard Times in my first year of college and that (with the opinions of most of my class and the addition of an unpopular teacher) was so easy to dislike.

The moment at which Dickens began to make sense to me, and I suspect this reflects very badly on me as a reader, was when I began to read him as weird. In Larry’s post here, he suggests that ‘…the more a Text (or even its Author, divorced as s/he may be from the Text’s semantics) diverges from a Reader’s expectations for what a Text ought to do, the more and more likely that Text will be dismissed as being “shoddy” or “poor”‘. And I needed a tradition, a particular lens to read him Dickens through, to appreciate how wonderful he was.* I’m not sure quite when I found it, but sometime in the last few years it has clicked into place.

And so last year when I first read this first paragraph of Bleak House…:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

… I was thinking about the Victorians and evolution and geology, I was thinking about the cleverness of that compound interest metaphor in this place, I was thinking how marvellous and evocative it all was, and I was thinking fucking dinosaurs and it was the first time I’d started reading Dickens and immediately felt such utter glee.



*(The Pickwick Papers – which is, after Bleak House, the Dickens work I’ve loved most – I read through a somewhat different lens, and one which took me rather less time to find)


February 6, 2012

Bram Stoker, The Jewel of Seven Stars

I wrote my most recent Kindle magazine column on public domain books while I was revising a conference paper on Egypt-themed fin de siècle invasion fiction. Naturally, then, I felt that the book deserved a few thousand words and that the 500-odd I had in which to write this column managed to say almost nothing. There’s a lesson here, and it’s probably the opposite of write what you know.



When the Nineteenth century turned into the Twentieth, the British Empire was still going strong. This makes it all the more interesting that this period should have seen a trend of “invasion” fiction, in which Britain was the colonised, rather than the colonising country. Some of these would-be colonisers came from the actual colonised countries (the “yellow peril” novels, for example, used the threat of an expanding Chinese population); others were of a supernatural nature. Bulwer-Lytton wrote of a subterranean “Coming Race”. H.G. Wells had England invaded by Martians in The War of the Worlds, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula arrived from Eastern Europe.

Dracula is hardly obscure; it is the definitive vampire novel.  The character has entered pop culture in a vast range of iterations, from the cartoon “Count Duckula” to the magnificently awful film (available on youtube!) Shaitani Dracula.  Fewer people are acquainted with another invasion novel which Stoker wrote a few years later; The Jewel of Seven Stars.

The Jewel of Seven Stars is in part a product of late Victorian (and early 20th Century) England’s fascination with Egypt.  In it, an English scholar named Mr Trelawney, comes into the possession of the preserved or mummified body of an Ancient Egyptian queen and attempts to resurrect her. Malcolm Ross, the narrator, is in love with Trelawney’s daughter Margaret. Everyone is a little surprised to discover that the spectacularly beautiful mummified queen and the spectacularly beautiful Miss Trelawney are physically identical. Naturally (as in most books about reanimated corpses) things go horribly wrong.

In many ways The Jewel of Seven Stars is a weaker novel than Dracula, but a few things make it stand out. One is the way in which it dramatizes the sheer discomfort around various aspects of Egyptology and the colonial enterprise. It’s clearest of all in a scene where the mummified body is unveiled – mummy unveilings often turned into public events. Here, Mr Trelawney and his associates stand gloating at the body of the woman they have stripped while in the presence of a woman physically identical to her, whom they have sworn to protect.

The book is also notable for having two endings. Stoker’s original ending had Tera victorious – the narrator enters the room to discover that not only has she reawakened, but that all the witnesses to her resurrection are lying around petrified and glassy-eyed. When the novel was republished in 1912, Stoker was told to give it a less gruesome ending. He managed, magnificently, to give it one that (to me at least) seems even more ominous. What looks like a traditional, happily-ever-after wedding is undercut by Margaret’s decision to dress herself as the dead queen. I am tempted to read this as a sign that the two women have changed places – that the narrator is now sharing his bed not with the woman he loves, but with a centuries-old impostor. Perhaps even more disturbing is another explanation, that Tera has in some way possessed Margaret’s mind. Either way, Stoker’s ability to amp up the creepiness of his book while pretending to tone it down is something to be lauded.



February 1, 2012

January Reading

As promised, the first of a series of monthly updates listing the books I read this year. January got off to rather a slow start, but began to pick up towards the end. I have a rather terrifying deadline to meet in March, but I’m hoping I can still get some decent reading done over the coming month.


Stella Gibbons, Westwood: A longish review of this for the Sunday Guardian will be coming at some point. Lynne Truss (who, as I understand it, was a big part of the move to get this and other Gibbons books back in print) suggests that Westwood is the Persuasion to Cold Comfort Farm’s Pride and Prejudice, and it’s easy to see where she’s coming from – though surely if one wanted to get the analogy exactly right CCF would be compared to Northanger Abbey. Westwood certainly feels more mature, more wistful, and less obviously funny. Still a fine book, but I think I’ll always love Cold Comfort Farm more.

Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns): Very fluffy, very funny. I suspect it was also very hurriedly put together, judging by the amount of material that feels purely for the purpose of filling up space. Reviewed along with How to Be a Woman, here.

Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman: See above.

Edmund Crispin, The Gilded Fly, Love Lies Bleeding, Buried for Pleasure: I’d read two of the Gervase Fen mysteries before; The Moving Toyshop (generally considered the best of the lot) and Holy Disorders. A bookshop I visit had six or so of the series – I bought these three and have since visited and obtained the others. Ages ago Subashini suggested that Love Lies Bleeding was perfectly tailored to my interests and this turned out to be the case; school story, murder mystery and drive-by Shakespeare geekery all in one. The others were less perfect but good fun, and Buried for Pleasure particularly pleased me on its first page with its description of a chocolate machine “rusting and overturned, like a casualty in some robot war”.

Barbara Cartland, The Rhapsody of Love: Oh dear. Dubious premise (brother and sister come to London to meet guardian; due to a legal quibble guardian is actually sexy young son of former guardian) borrowed from Heyer’s Regency Buck, nothing remotely attractive about either of the main characters, random running away to the circus, and not even the ridiculous eugenics of A Sword to the Heart to keep me entertained.

Enid Blyton, The “R” Mysteries: Part of a bit of academic research I’ve been dancing around for a while. Expect to see quite a few references to Blyton on this blog in the near future. This is (for those with imperfect memories) the series that begins with The Rockingdown Mystery, ends with The Ragamuffin Mystery, and features four children, a monkey and a hyperactive spaniel. I’ve always quite liked the “R” books, and they’re certainly more mature than a lot of Blyton’s other work. But more on that in a half-finished post that I really should get around to finishing.

Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen: I’ll be writing at length on this book and linking to other people’s commentaries. But it’s been some years since I read it, and I’m astonished by how powerful it still is. I loved the book when I first read it, but I’ve tended to think of it as a less mature relative of The Owl Service and Red Shift. And while it’s probably accessible to younger readers than either of those two books, it is much more than that.

Mary Robinette Kowal, Shades of Milk and Honey: On the surface this novel combined a number of things I love; Austen, Regency romance, and fantasy. The central conceit of the glamour as a learned art fits well into the historical setting. And I liked the various echoes of Austen scattered through the plot – the Mrs. Bennet-ish mother, the Dashwood-ish contrasting sisters and so on. But this book is really only Austenesque with regard to setting and those particular plot points. It lacks Austen’s humour and her sense of irony and offers up in compensation only a tepid romance and a bunch of characters it’s hard to care much about. And while I know that Austen would have spelled “show” as “shew”, I can’t imagine that she’d have used it so often that one would notice and get tired of it. Beyond its premise, then, Shades of Milk and Honey left me distinctly underwhelmed.

Kuzhali Manickavel, Eating Sugar, Telling Lies: I’m not sure if it’s cheating to list here what is effectively a short story, but it’s a standalone work. I have a tendency to be a bit evangelical about Manickavel’s work. Her first collection is one of those books I’ve never owned for very long without pressing it on a friend – I’ve bought it at least five times so far, and received one copy as a gift. Eating Sugar, Telling Lies is exactly as good as Insects was. It’s dark and layered, clever, grotesque and it feels me with so much envy because I’d love to have written it.


In unrelated news, my review of Lavie Tidhar’s Cloud Permutations was published over at Strange Horizons while I was away and can be found here.