Archive for ‘eldritch horror’

September 9, 2013

Were-lizard? (There lizard!)

Occasionally, non-Indian SFF fans ask me if India has an equivalent tradition to the werewolf– stories of humans turning into animals (or animals into humans). I’m no expert, and traditions of the supernatural differ wildly across the country, so I usually say something vague about human-snake transformations and leave it at that. But now there’s this.

This was the front page of this Sunday’s HT City, and was brought to my attention by Aadisht.

It appears to be advertising a show called Shapath: Super Cops vs Super Villains (Monday to Friday, 9pm). The caption, in case it’s not clear enough, reads: “Kya zeheriley chipkali-manav ke atank ko rok payenge supercops?”*

I’m assuming the answer is yes, but I really, really want to find out.

*(“Can the terror of the lizard-man be stopped by the supercops?” Or, why I am not a translator.)

April 10, 2013

Bet Me, choice and body horror

About halfway through Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me, the protagonists have decided that they want to stay away from one another. Neither of them particularly wants a relationship with the other person (though they are attracted to one another), and (naturally) a series of increasingly unsubtle signs that they are destined for one another makes them uncomfortable.

Bet Me was recommended to me as a funny, fat-positive romance novel. It’s certainly the first, and to some extent the second–though I take issue with some aspects of it. It’s also a book that bases its plot on a well-worn trope of the genre, only to completely to undo it. Because the bet plot is a staple one. Our hero (or in at least one book I’ve read, our heroine) bets he can seduce our heroine (or our hero, presumably), but finds himself falling in love with her; heroine finds out about the bet at the worst possible time and will not believe he really cares for her; true love prevails and our hero is forgiven because men will be men or something. In Crusie’s book this is all a misunderstanding– it’s Min’s evil ex-boyfriend who tries to make the bet with Cal, and though Cal doesn’t accept it, Min, overhearing, thinks he has (we’re not told if she is a romance reader).

But as these characters struggle to deal with their increasing tolerance for one another,it seems fate has other things planned for them. A childhood treasure lost by Min turns up again after she has joked about loving Cal forever if he’ll get it back for her. Attempts by both parties to avoid one another result in their sitting next to one another in a movie theatre. As Min’s friend Bonnie complains, “True love is beating you over the head to get your attention”.

A lot of the romance I’ve read (and I can’t claim to be an expert) is in dialogue with the idea of love as irresistable, overpowering force that overrides the free will of its protagonists and gives them no choice but to be together. Characters seen as resisting this (because who wants to lose the ability to choose?) have to learn to trust in whatever higher power is in this case seen as being in charge of things – destiny becomes an external, supernatural force that a) cannot be countermanded b) knows what’s best for us all anyway.The supernatural force that, at multiple points in the book, is literally yelling “THIS ONE” in Min’s or Cal’s ears. If Bet Me bases its plot on the undoing of one of the genre’s tropes, it also literalises one of its most enduring metaphors.

And so I don’t think the violence of Bonnie’s “beating you over the head” metaphor is accidental, particularly when it turns out to be less metaphorical and more violent than you’d expect.


“She said yes,” Cal said, reaching for his toast. “However, I cannot bring her because I will not be seeing her ever aga—” His fingers brushed the metal top of the toaster and he burned himself and dropped the phone. “Damn it,” he said and put his scorched fingertips in his mouth.

“Calvin?” his mother said from the phone.

He picked up the receiver. “I burned myself on the toaster. Sorry.” Cal turned on the cold water and stuck his fingers underneath the stream. “Anyway, I will not be seeing Minerva Dobbs again.” He stepped away from the sink onto something hard and his foot slipped out from under him and smacked into the cabinets. “Ouch.”

“Calvin?” his mother said.

“I stepped on a knife.” Cal bent to pick up the peanut butter knife and smacked his head into the counter. “Hell.”


Cal and Min will [spoiler alert! except not really] get together, of course, and the book suggests they will be very happy. But you have to wonder to what lengths destiny would have gone had they not succumbed exhausted to its machinations. From the middle of the book onwards Cal and Min are hostages, not protagonists, of the romance plot–a supernatural entity that they cannot see or control is forcing them together and inflicting physical violence upon them when they do not immediately go along with it. Imagine destiny as a child playing with dolls, smashing their faces together and making kissing noises. Now imagine those dolls are sentient.


January 23, 2013

Sarah Gorely, Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron

Yes, well. I apologise?

Last week’s column. On the site here; worth reading because they went with the most entertaining pull quote and because of Chris Braak’s comment.


It is “a dark and windy night” when we first encounter Miss Priscilla Butterworth. Miss Butterworth is no stranger to tragedy—she was born in a town ravaged by pox, a disease that robbed her of most of her family including her father. Her mother would eventually follow him, pecked to death by pigeons. Priscilla also breaks both legs, and is nearly sold into slavery. Worse, she appears to be persecuted by a mad baron.

Naturally, Priscilla Butterworth is fictional. She’s the protagonist of the cliché-ridden Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron, a romance novel by one Sarah Gorely. Sarah Gorely does not exist.

Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron first makes its appearance, as far as I can tell, in Julia Quinn’s 2005 comic Regency romance novel It’s In His Kiss (readers of this column will by now have gathered that I read a lot of romance fiction), as the sort of lurid novel enjoyed by an elderly countess. The book surfaces again in the same author’s later Regency novel What Happens in London, in which it plays a part in averting an international diplomatic incident. In her Ten Things I Love About You we discover not only the true author of this volume, but also a list of her other works.

So far, none of this is that surprising. For an author to spoof a genre within a book that is purportedly within that genre itself is something that writers have been doing since at least Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It’s funny and self-aware; it’s a way of sending up both the genre itself, and those who condemn it based on stereotypes. What is perhaps more unusual is that Quinn’s fictional book shows up again, but this time in a book by another romance author, Eloisa James.

Fans of horror fiction will be familiar with the weird stories of H.P. Lovecraft, whose universe was populated with ancient and terrifying intelligences far beyond the comprehension of man. Later writers built on these stories so that nowadays what is considered the Cthulhu Mythos (Cthulhu being one of Lovecraft’s most memorable creations) consists of the work of several authors. These are not mere sequels, this is the sharing of a universe. Horror writers are neither the first nor the last to do this; comic books from the same publishing house are often set, broadly, in the same universe with characters from one series often crossing over into another. To those of us who are mere casual observers the plot gymnastics needed to keep all this making some sort of sense are mind-boggling. Somewhat more recently, writers of fanfiction have embraced the crossover, creatively manipulating plot so that characters from one book or movie may find their lives plausibly intertwined with those of another.

Readers of the Regency romance often complain that novels in this genre are historically inaccurate in their language and attitudes, particularly with regard to such areas as sexuality and politics (you’ll find few Regency heroes in support of the slave trade, for example). Modern language often creeps in, including Americanisms. To be fair to these authors, many of us (myself included) are probably basing our ideas of the period entirely on Georgette Heyer anyway. Nowadays I find it easier to simply see the Regency romance as a specific sort of fantasy novel instead—to imagine these books set in an alternate universe where there’s less slavery and more cunnilingus. When authors initiate their own crossovers, when they pay these small tributes to one another, it’s easy to conceive of all of these stories as existing in one, densely populated world.

A prominent feature of the Cthulhu Mythos is the Necronomicon, a book that contains terrifying and dangerous knowledge about Lovecraft’s universe and the beings that populate it. Lovecraft’s contemporaries cited this book as well, and it has since often been referred to in popular culture. Lovecraft approved of this; apparently he felt the multiple references gave it “a background of evil verisimilitude.” Perhaps Miss Butterworth and the Mad Baron is Regency romance’s Necronomicon.



October 25, 2012

Thomas Ligotti, Stuart Moore, Ben Templesmith, Joe Harris, Ted McKeever,Colleen Doran, Michael Gaydos, The Nightmare Factory

The above is proof that this blog’s author comma title format is a bit flawed with certain sorts of books.

I’ve read the Ligotti originals of some of the stories in this collection before, and found most of them a lot more effective than these adaptations. I’m tempted to go back and reread now. Perhaps a Hallowe’en treat.



I’m only an occasional horror reader and so am less evangelical about great writers who work within that tradition than I would be otherwise. But one criminally underrated author in the genre is the American short story writer Thomas Ligotti.

In 2007 Fox Atomic Comics published The Nightmare Factory, a collection of graphic adaptations of four of Ligotti’s stories. Each piece was introduced with a short essay by Ligotti himself, and four different artists brought four very different styles to the author’s work.

“The Last Feast of Harlequin”, written by Stuart Moore and with art by Colleen Doran, was the first of these stories. An anthropologist with seasonal affective disorder travels to a remote town to learn about its strange midwinter rituals, and finds himself horrified by what he learns. Fans of H.P. Lovecraft might find this rather familiar, but then the story is dedicated to him. As Ligotti notes in his introduction it’s a staple of the Lovecraft story to have the protagonists go mad as a result of the horrors to which they have been exposed. But the focus of “The Last Feast of Harlequin” is on its narrator’s mental health from the start. It is this focus on the inside of his head that makes this story work so well; and some of his interior monologues have a lyrical power to them that is startling. Yet in a sense this is the weakest of the adaptations; its biggest strengths are all things it takes from the original story.

This might also be the case with the second story, “Dream of a Mannikin”, also written by Moore but with art by Ben Templesmith. This seems to be the one-sided correspondence between a psychiatrist and his lover, who has been doing some rather alarming psychological research of her own. Dreams form a large part of the story. Templesmith’s art, with its wonderful use of golden light, gives it an appropriately dreamlike feel. Yet “Dream of a Mannikin” only inspires admiration for its clever premise and beautiful artwork; there is no fear. Ligotti’s introduction is a meditation on the ways in which dolls, mannequins and other human-shaped, non-living objects are used to inspire horror. It’s clear that he understands how this works, so why doesn’t it work here? I’m not sure.

For me, as I expect is the case for many readers, the most effective horror is something sensed obliquely. However tired a sentiment this may seem, things depicted graphically tend to be less awful than those the imagination can provide. Doran’s art, in the first story of the book, comes the closest to realism – and serves its accompanying story the least. The opposite is true of Ted McKeever’s artwork for “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum”, written by Joe Harris. McKeever’s depiction of Ligotti’s haunted town is just this side of normal, but faces and buildings frequently slip over into the grotesque. This is perhaps the only case in which Ligotti’s original story is genuinely strengthened by the shift in form; the ghostly silhouettes are chilling.

“Teatro Grottesco”, also written by Harris, has art by Michael Gaydos. Gaydos’ watercolour figures are impressive; but once again this adaptation is more intellectually pleasing – though its hero might be too clever for his own good – than viscerally effective.

The Nightmare Factory has some clever adaptations and fine art, but on the whole it’s still a bit of a disappointment, when only one of the four stories really captures the power of Ligotti’s original work. The introductory essays by the author are in equal parts entertaining and frustrating. On the one hand, they reinforce the sense that this is genre writing that knows its tropes and works with them intelligently. On the other, it’s not always comfortable to have Ligotti’s voice informing the reader what each piece is really about. There’s the sense of someone standing behind one, reading over one’s shoulder. And if there’s one genre in which you don’t want to feel like someone has crept up behind you…


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 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.



September 27, 2011

Carol Birch, Jamrach’s Menagerie

When I saw Jamrach’s Menagerie on the Booker longlist I was intrigued. By the time I’d read and reviewed it, it had made it to the shortlist. Not having read all of the other shortlisted books I can’t give it my unqualified support, but I’d be quite pleased if it won.

This review originally published at GlobalComment, here.



Jaffy Brown has lived all of his short life among the streets and sewers of London. Everything changes one day when he encounters a tiger in the street. Ignorant of what the beast is and compelled to touch it (“Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose”) he finds himself picked up in its mouth and dragged away, before he is rescued, unharmed.

The tiger’s (very apologetic) owner is Charles Jamrach – and so far, this is a true story. Jamrach did own a menagerie in Victorian London; in 1857 one of his tigers did escape and carry off a young boy and the boy did live to tell the tale. A statue in Wapping commemorates the incident.

Jaffy goes to work with Jamrach where he discovers a talent for looking after animals. This brings him into an often-antagonistic friendship with a co-worker, Tim Linver. An incident early in the book, where Tim locks Jaffy inside Jamrach’s shop for the night, is the means of introducing Jaffy to Tim’s family – including a sister, Ishbel, with whom Jaffy immediately falls in love.


This first part of this Booker-shortlisted book has been described in almost every review as ‘Dickensian’. It is accomplished, clearly the work of an extremely talented writer, but they are also in many ways (and in defiance of the title) the least interesting part of the book. The real story begins when Dan Rymer, who supplies Jamrach with his animals, receives a commission to hunt for a dragon that is rumoured to exist in the islands of Indonesia. Rymer, along with Jaffy and Tim, joins the crew of a whaling ship bound for the region. And it is the sea-bound sections of Birch’s book that raise the novel from check-the-boxes Victoriana into brilliance.

Jamrach’s Menagerie
 is very clear about its sources. At more than one point in the story characters refer to the Essex, the sunken whaling ship that inspired Melville’s Moby Dick.

Certain things I remember. The fo’c’s’le, Gabriel saying: “There’s an evil spot out there, they do say.”
Sam smiling. “Don’t frighten the little ones,” he said.
“Everybody knows about it.”
“I don’t,” I said.
Gabriel looked at me. “No? The place where things happen. Where the Essex was lost, and more since. A cursed spot upon the ocean.”
Everyone knows about the Essex, and all the others. It’s legend on the whale ships. It’s something of a joke.

Specific reference is made to Owen Coffin, a teenaged boy aboard the Essex who was sacrificed and eaten by the remaining crew after the shipwreck. “’I knew a man knew Owen Coffin as a lad,’ said Gabriel. ‘Sailed with his father, he did. Said Owen was a nice boy, and a good sailor like his dad.’” Like Melville, Birch draws on these stories for her own, and the references work to foreshadow events to come.
The whaling sections are brutal; the chase almost a seduction and the killing and harvesting utterly grotesque. It’s a relief to learn that all this is nearly at an end.

My clothes had dried upon me and become a second skin, and the bones and organs of the whale floated alongside the ship in a great snapping of sharks and a feasting of seabirds. I stood with Gabriel looking down. Morning had come.
“Take it all in, son,” he said. “Doubt you’ll get the chance again.”
“Why so?”
“The whaling’s done for,” he said, and grinned.
“No call for the oil no more. It’s all this new stuff now. They’ll always need the bone for the ladies’ stays, but they won’t be wanting all this oil no more.”
“What new stuff?”
“Oil under the ground,” he said.

This is not the only indication that the book is set at the end of an era. The quest for the dragon reminds one of the beginning of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here Marlow, the narrator, describes his childhood fascination with maps.

I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.’ The North Pole was one of these places, I remember. Well, I haven’t been there yet, and shall not try now. The glamour’s off.

As a child, Jaffy’s lack of knowledge made of the tiger “a mythical beast”.Jamrach’s Menagerie is set at what seems like one of the last moments when it is possible to discover dragons. There are still spaces in the world that are largely unknown., The sort of knowledge with which Rymer and his companions approach the capture of the dragon (just a rumour of a rumour of a tale told by a sailor) is the most the characters have to go on. Yet this will change. At the beginning of the book Jaffy is dreaming of dragons. By its end (in a reference that would otherwise be another predictable nod to the Victorian setting) he is reading Darwin.
But for the book the dragon occupies a strange in-betweenness, halfway between the mythical creature of Jaffy’s imaginings and the scientific truth. The ‘dragon’ or ‘Ora’ is, of course, a Komodo dragon and nothing like the dragons of Jaffy’s fancy (“It’s not a dragon,” I said. “It’s like he always said. A big crocodile”). But the harsh reality of science does not entirely take us out of the world of fantasy. The ‘dragon’ may not have wings or breathe fire, but there is something supernatural about it. “How was it we became so afraid of the dragon? Not just as anyone would be afraid of a wild animal with claws and teeth, but as if it was something more”. The “something more” that is attributed to the dragon (which seems to blight the fortunes of everyone on the ship. After its capture the ship slips into an alternate state, a nightmarish sense of stasis that seems a tribute to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. “Time changed”, as the narrator puts it:

And on and on in that dream—seven dark days and nights that had begun to feel eternal. The superstition of sailors is no more than the lone howling of millions of miles between you and dry land and home, making you know you are a thing that can die. Superstition, dark, spiky, high stepping, stalked with cloven foot upon our decks. And when superstition high-steps on a lone sea deck, far and far from every strand, as the old songs say—then, oh then …

Not just when sleeping, not just half asleep on my feet at the masthead, not just tipsy-drifting with a head full of gummy warmth, but always, every conscious second I was beautifully, startlingly afraid, with a fear crisp and invisible as the honed edge of a fine blade.

The quiet horror builds up over chapters in which nothing much actually happens – then climaxes as something does. But the sense of unreality that sets in in these chapters continues for most of the book.
A series of tragedies follows. The nature of these tragedies has been evident throughout the book – if the multiple references to the Essex had not been enough, conversations about cannibalism in the islands (and an unpleasant scene where komodo dragons feed off a dead member of their species) and the conviction that the ship is cursed would make it all obvious. But through the bleakness, the dark humour as the number of survivors in the captain’s prayer decreases day by day, there’s a dreamlike quality to everything. And of course we always know that our narrator will survive.

Jaffy is an odd narrator. Birch has his voice shift constantly between those of a child and of an educated adult looking back. Were this a particularly plot-driven book, this would be a complete giveaway of the ending. Jaffy is also entirely too good, which is a little disappointing; this may be a subjective retelling, but nothing about the plot suggests that its narrator is ever anything but blameless. The only thing that keeps him interesting despite this is the fellow feeling for the animals he encounters the whale, the tiger, Jamrach’s various creatures. Even the dragon – he is repulsed, afraid, and sometimes refers to it as a demon, yet Jaffy is able sometimes to identify with it.

A line from the Book of Job is quoted twice in the book; I am a brother to dragons and a companion of owls. By the end it seems to typify Jaffy, who is by this point running his own aviary. The final sections of the book, chronicling Jaffy’s return to London and his later life are rather perfunctory and disappointing. There are awkward encounters with families and an (in the circumstances) improbable recommencement of a romance. There is more Victoriana: a reference to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a client of Jamrach’s; Birch resists the temptation to namecheck another client, the far more colourful P.T. Barnum). It’s never bad – at her worst Birch is still an accomplished writer. But it lacks the magic of the seafaring chapters of the book.

Jamrach’s Menagerie is on this year’s Man Booker shortlist and it thoroughly deserves to be there. But if it wins it will be on the (considerable) strength of that central section alone.



 I spent a good chunk of that review wanting to make a connection to this book, which I read last year. There are the obvious connections – undiscovered creatures; shipwreck; cannibalism; heightened, feverish shipboard imaginings – but I suppose these are in enough ship-related stories to be quite normal. Certainly I can find no evidence that Birch has read this particular Poe work. Still, it would be nice to be proved right.
June 12, 2011

Rachel Ferguson, The Brontës went to Woolworths

I expected myself to really love The Brontës went to Woolworths. When I did not, I did what any reasonable person would do; tried to make it more entertaining by reading it as a horror novel. Naturally.

Last week’s Left of Cool piece on it is here. Here is the original version; both may contain spoilers.

If there’s one thing that people know about the Brontë family (apart from that the three sisters wrote books, of course. Or that story that Somerset Maugham tells of how Branwell Brontë died standing up.) it is that they spent their youths inventing fictional worlds. The siblings collaborated in the development of the kingdoms of Gondal and Angria. Branwell and Charlotte were responsible in the main for Angria, while Gondal belonged to Emily and Anne. In addition to the creation of maps, stories and histories, Emily and Anne were known to pretend to be particular characters themselves. This continued into their adulthood, and apparently shocked poor Charlotte.
The relationship of the Brontë siblings with Angria and Gondal is the sort of thing that was made for fiction. And so other writers have riffed off the idea. I’m particularly fond of Antonia Forest’s brilliant Peter’s Room, in which a group of teenagers try their hand at “Gondalling” and find it soon getting out of control.

Rachel Ferguson’s 1931 novel The Brontës went to Woolworths is another book that plays on the Brontës’ tradition of make-believe. The Carne sisters (Carne was the name of the Brontës’ cousins on the maternal side) live in a world of make-believe. The three sisters (Deirdre, Katrine and Shiel) and their mother have made up elaborate fantasies about a number of people whom they do not really know. Chief among these are the Judge Toddington (“Toddy” to the Carnes) and his less-remarkable wife Lady Mildred. Shiel’s governess, the comparatively dull Miss Martin, is alarmed by the entire family’s willingness to live a make-believe life. She is even more concerned by her young charge’s inability to tell the difference between the real and pretend.

It’s hard to decide how I feel about these books and the characters. On the one hand, the Carne sisters are frequently charming. Take this, from the beginning of the book:

A woman at one of mother’s parties once said to me, “Do you like reading?” which smote us all to silence, for how could one tell her that books are like having a bath or sleeping, or eating bread – absolute necessities which one never thinks of in terms of appreciation. And we all sat waiting for her to say that she had so little time for reading, before ruling her right out for ever and ever.

On the other (and quite apart from all the willful self-delusion and the borderline stalking of the Toddingtons) they are also rather despicable. Lady Mildred’s inferiority (imagined at first; real once they meet and befriend the couple) is signaled throughout by her vocabulary and pronunciation of certain words marking her out as Not One of Us. Katrine can seek a career in the theatre, but a man she works with is acknowledged to be an unfit partner. And governesses are contemptible – Miss Martin is dull for being uncomfortable with their games, but the governess who succeeds her cannot join in without getting it all wrong.

Yet these problems are resolved if you focus on one factor in the book – the Brontës (and those concerned with plot spoilers should stop reading now). The trip to Woolworths mentioned in the title actually happens. The Brontës appear in the story as ghosts. And the real Brontë sisters all worked as governesses.

I suspect my reading of this book might surprise the author. But she is dead; literally as well as in a Roland Barthes, Death of the Author way. And so in her absence I’m choosing to read The Brontës Went to Woolworths as a horror story. One that features charming, terrifyingly deluded upper-class child-women (the possibilities for psychological horror are immense) and real, live ghosts. And the governess, (like her literary predecessor in Henry James’ Turn of the Screw) seeing horrors all around her, and, (like her other ancestor Jane Eyre) quite possibly the only sane person in the place.


May 29, 2010

Squid pro quo

Today’s Indian Express has a short review I wrote of China Mieville’s Kraken. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but thought it was a bit flabby and relied too much on its references to pop and geek culture. I could not resist using the Express’ gloriously bad pun in the title. (The repetition in that last paragraph is all my fault).


The main attraction for visitors to London’s Darwin Centre is a perfectly preserved giant squid, Architheusis dux (Archie to those who work there). Then one day it disappears, tank and all, without a trace, and Billy Harrow, a museum curator, finds himself the target of a number of very strange people. With this, the reader and Billy are thrown into an alternative London, replete with squid-worshipping cults, rival gangs (one of them ruled by a terrifying sentient tattoo) and unionising animals; where a special branch of the police force exists to control supernatural happenings. It’s a London where one can literally read the entrails of the city to divine the future. And everyone seems to think that the world is about to end.

China Miéville was recently awarded an Arthur C. Clarke award for his 2009 novel The City & the City, making him the only author ever to have won the award three times. His latest book, Kraken, is a comic, allusive adventure story set in London. This is far removed from the dense, baroque language of Miéville’s earlier books. If anything, it is closest in style to his young adult novel Un Lun Dun. This does not, however, mean that it’s an easy read. Like any Mieville book, Kraken is brimming with ideas, about (among other things) groups and fandom and cities and religion and belief. It’s also Mieville’s least restrained work yet.

The book reads as a loving tribute to geekdom, a gleeful tour of all that growing up as a science fiction fan entails. The fascination with cephalopods and tentacles has been a big part of geek culture for a while now, and is traceable back to the pulp horror writer H.P Lovecraft. There are references in the text to other major writers who have influenced Miéville, including J.G Ballard and Michael Moorcock. There are a number of references to Star Trek: Wati, a disembodied revolutionary spirit, spends much of the novel communicating with the other characters by inhabiting an action figure of the original series’ Captain Kirk. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, another fantasy novel set in London, gets a nod in the form of Goss and Subby, two apparently immortal assassins who call to mind Gaiman’s Croup and Vandemar. There’s even an element of The X-Files in the interaction between Vardy and Collingwood, members of the special police.

Last year, Booker judge John Mullan dismissed the entire Science fiction genre as being “bought by a special kind of person who has special weird things they go to and meet each other”. Miéville has been critical of this extremely reductive (not to mention ignorant) view of the genre. Yet Mullan’s description seems a strangely apt description of the world Billy enters. It’s far too tempting to point to the parallels between the cult-filled underbelly of Kraken’s London and science fiction fantasy fandom itself. In part this is because the preoccupations of this world (giant squid! Atlantis!) are so fannish. Miéville makes the connection even stronger with the introduction of Simon Shaw, a character who is both a “Trekkie” and a part of the supernatural underground.

Far more than being a book about fans, though, this is a book for that “special kind of person”. If you grew up watching Star Trek, reading Moorcock, playing Dungeons and Dragons, Kraken is an utter delight.

But this may actually be the book’s biggest flaw. At times it appears more an act of redamancy towards the genre than an actual novel. Plot is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of a pun, or a clever allusion. The conclusion is clever but it is unnecessarily dragged out, to the point that we end up having multiple “final showdown” moments.

With a little more of the discipline and rigour that characterise some of Miéville’s other works, Kraken could have been brilliant. Yet a Mieville book is always worth reading. Kraken is the product of a fascinating mind at play, and is worth reading for that reason alone.

April 20, 2010

"Every species of calamity and horror befell me"

…or, The Trials of Arthur Gordon Pym
[There are spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing]

I don’t actually remember reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I always assumed I had in my extreme youth because I remembered the basic plot and it isn’t one of those books that is so embedded in culture that everyone knows the plot just by existing. But surely I’d have remembered reading something this odd?

It’s tempting to sneer a bit at this book for being so ridiculously over the top. There’s a quality of breathless “and then, and then, and then!” about it – there was a mutiny! And then we were shipwrecked! and there were ghosts! And we had to eat a crew member! Then we were attacked by sharks! Yet this works – this is a story posing as a travel journal and if this were supposed to be a realistic narrative (it’s not) it would be a bit strange to have it carefully plotted. As a horror (? travel? fantasy? shipwreck? angry natives, run away!?) story it works even better – the eerie, bizarre incidents build up one on top of the other and by sustaining a level of hysteria throughout the book promise a spectacular climax.

I was struck by how genuinely weird the book is. Towards the beginning, when Arthur stows away aboard the ship, his friend Augustus has made careful arrangements to conceal him until they’re safely away at sea. He is to be hidden down a secret passage (on a ship!) in a box:

The taper gave out so feeble a ray that it was with the greatest difficulty I could grope my way through the confused mass of lumber among which I now found myself. By degrees, however, my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and I proceeded with less trouble, holding on to the skirts of my friend’s coat. He brought me, at length, after creeping and winding through innumerable narrow passages, to an iron-bound box, such as is used sometimes for packing fine earthenware. It was nearly four feet high, and full six long, but very narrow. Two large empty oil-casks lay on the top of it, and above these, again, a vast quantity of straw matting, piled up as high as the floor of the cabin. In every other direction around was wedged as closely as possible, even up to the ceiling, a complete chaos of almost every species of ship-furniture, together with a heterogeneous medley of crates, hampers, barrels, and bales, so that it seemed a matter no less than miraculous that we had discovered any passage at all to the box. I afterward found that Augustus had purposely arranged the stowage in this hold with a view to affording me a thorough concealment, having had only one assistant in the labour, a man not going out in the brig.

My companion now showed me that one of the ends of the box could be removed at pleasure. He slipped it aside and displayed the interior, at which I was excessively amused. A mattress from one of the cabin berths covered the whole of its bottom, and it contained almost every article of mere comfort which could be crowded into so small a space, allowing me, at the same time, sufficient room for my accommodation, either in a sitting position or lying at full length.

Pym shows absolutely no surprise at the notion that he is to encoffin himself and sit around in the dark for a few days; it is treated as an entirely routine part of stowing away. He obligingly goes off into a delirious dream for a few days. He wakes up days later to rotten meat, a dog who is behaving strangely , and the discovery that the ship has been taken over.

But it’s the delirious dream part that I find interesting – for someone who has just recently shown such willingness to bury himself prematurely (a chapter or so later Pym finds himself impersonating a corpse again) Pym seems to be suffering quite the breakdown.

While occupied with this thought, however, I fell in spite of every exertion to the contrary, into a state of profound sleep, or rather stupor. My dreams were of the most terrific description. Every species of calamity and horror befell me. Among other miseries I was smothered to death between huge pillows, by demons of the most ghastly and ferocious aspect. Immense serpents held me in their embrace, and looked earnestly in my face with their fearfully shining eyes. Then deserts, limitless, and of the most forlorn and awe-inspiring character, spread themselves out before me. Immensely tall trunks of trees, gray and leafless, rose up in endless succession as far as the eye could reach. Their roots were concealed in wide-spreading morasses, whose dreary water lay intensely black, still, and altogether terrible, beneath. And the strange trees seemed endowed with a human vitality, and waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy, in the shrill and piercing accents of the most acute agony and despair. The scene changed; and I stood, naked and alone, amidst the burning sand-plains of Sahara. At my feet lay crouched a fierce lion of the tropics. Suddenly his wild eyes opened and fell upon me. With a conculsive bound he sprang to his feet, and laid bare his horrible teeth. In another instant there burst from his red throat a roar like the thunder of the firmament, and I fell impetuously to the earth. Stifling in a paroxysm of terror, I at last found myself partially awake.

It strikes me as I write this that the characters all spend a good deal of their time not in their senses. There’s a drunken boating expedition in the first chapter that nearly causes Pym and Augustus their lives; there’s a lot section during which they and Dirk Peters are crazed with hunger (which happens to be when they see the alleged ghost ship), and the last section of the book, as they sail closer to the south pole, has a definite dream like quality to it.

And that’s how the terror element works as well. The shriekiness of the beginning (which is also the section where things like rotting flesh and cannibalism form the major part of the horror) gradually slips into this muted fear that is far more effective. When the southern barbarians kill most of the crew towards the end of the book, it’s a relatively bloodless mass murder that involves getting a cliff to fall on top of them (the earlier chapters would have included some dismemberment at the very least). The final sections of the book have the narrator and two of his companions sailing south into the unknown. At the very end Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow” and the narrative ends abruptly, with nothing more than a note in the frame narrative to tell us that the next few chapters are missing, that Pym is dead, that companion Dirk is alive. The climax we were promised turns out to be not knowing.

Arthur Gordon Pym is bizarre – it has elements of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Lovecraft, and the pirate comic in Watchmen, and I haven’t said half of what I want to say about it here. I’m surprised it hasn’t been referenced more in later literature – and if anyone reading this can think of instances where it has, let me know?