Friday, 8 January 2016

'Benighted' by J.B.Priestley or stick to well lighted places

Imagine my delight, when perusing the net, in discovering a specialist publisher- a la Valancourt Books- that seeks out and republishes long-forgotten titles from the ghostly and macabre canon. Clearly a major spending splurge will commence. I have already added 'The Elementals' by McDowell to the pile and am seriously coveting 'The Moorstone Sickness' by Taylor and 'The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral' by Westall, after only a mere customary glance.

Having loved Priestley's 'An Inspector Calls', it was a given thatI would select 'Benighted' first,  if only out of curiosity. Exploring how his writing would transfer from a play script to the novel format, holds a certain fascination for me. That said, it's premise was equally as intriguing: that of an old haunted house in which a band of strangers must take unwitting shelter, from uncontrollable forces. While such a plot is now in danger of being perceived as mere trope, by today's standards, I knew that Priestley would bring enough skill to his writing to move beyond this premise (we must also acknowledge that this novel was written long before our tired expectations). If was to be wrong, and find this novel tiresome it would still appeal to the more Hammer-horror esque aspect of my imagination.

While Brad and Janet would of course be proud of the setting and exposition offered up in this novel, it cannot be denied that Priestley expertly conjures an oppressive and brooding backdrop to his tale. Surprisingly, his theatrical bent lends itself very well to the story itself. Instead of overloading itself on the expression of fear through language (which in other novels can become tedious, in that the narrative description becomes exaggerated and renders itself detrimental to the tone intended). To say his language is simple, would be unfair, as he obviously wears his vocabulary lightly. However, he is confident enough to allow the story to speak for itself and rely on the careful foreshadowing of what will come in the littering of a few carefully placed words amongst the ordinary flow of the narrative, to build tension. Indeed words such as 'devilish', 'hunted beast', 'unfamiliar', 'savage, 'trembling' and 'threatening', while being used to explain their situation and the torrential weather they are at the mercy of also expertly ratchet up the ominous unease that creeps up on you as you read.

Perhaps the setting and exposure to natures power, touch on our primal fears (much like painted clown faces and ghost trains do for me- tied to the hidden and unknown aspects of experience, that which you cannot see and control).  Indeed, this novel circles carefully around metaphors of light and dark and how they juxtapose each other in our experience. The titular choice, 'Benighted', sums up nicely both Priestley's command and control of language and also reflects the main themes of the novel- both moral and physical. Benighted can mean:

A) overtaken by night or darkness


B) lacking enlightenment or knowledge

 which we understand clearly, once we have completed the novel and daylight has returned. Things always seem better in the light. While I was genuinely scared, while reading this novel, waiting to see what horror the writing would reveal and what fate would befall the protagonists, it was in the cold light of day and the dawning that we must all face our fears in the light, to examine them with clear sight that stayed with me the most. This is where the novel succeeds most and this is where Valancourt have done credit to the genre, by reminding us that great writing can be found amongst genre fodder. Thanks very much for the chills and the elucidation.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

'The Daylight Gate' by Jeanette Winterson or don't look north

'The Daylight Gate' by Jeanette Winterson was a chance find, in my local bookshop, when scouring for any potential spooky reads as Halloween approached. I have to say that I have probably exhausted the larger part of this canon, so I was intrigued when I spotted this one alongside Neil Spring's excellent 'The Watchers'. Two new reads in one foray! One with a spooky alien interplay, and the other veering towards Covens and Sabbats. Happy days.

So far, so different. Yet in some weird twist of fate, both books also share an uncanny ability to weave extant events of their times together, with unexpected links and connections drawn- making their stories their own re-workings (despite their vastly differing subject matter). Indeed, Winterson, has succeeded in bringing a little, gruesome piece of Hammer to the page that wears its power lightly. It is a short read, but this does not compromise on the horror. You get the feeling that she has expertly made every word count, in the delivery of this tragic tale. Short sentences abound, adding to the unease! Word choices are precise, cutting the atmosphere with a knife. A feeling of darkness descends as you immerse yourself into Jacobean Lancashire, and the Puritan terrors it enfolds.

Yet this sense of horror does not rely on our stereotypical expectations, in terms of characterisation. Witches naturally provide fertile ground for the exploitation of our primal fears. The atmosphere that is conjured, in the opening pages, lends itself closely to the dark and menacing premise that the three witches of Macbeth themselves embody. A dank, brooding air descends upon our senses reflecting the hopelessness that this novella expresses in its continuation. This subdued and oppressive atmosphere lends a melancholy sentiment to the enfolding misfortune that the unfortunates of this story endure. The real horror, unfortunately, lies in our realisation that certain strata of society, such as Catholics or independent women were annihilated in order to appease those with any grievance- real or imagined that may be afforded a sense of power from their accusations. Some of the actions exhibited by the power hungry males we encounter, make for uncomfortable reading and express a barbarity that we are less likely to understand in our modern lives, but that do still threaten us.

Ultimately, this tale succeeds in helping us pull our freedoms a little closer to us, appreciating them a little more than we did before, while being mindful that horrors could descend on any of us at anytime- reminding us that the darker aspect of humanity has never been entirely been eliminated. As they say, it's not the dead you should fear....

'The Wine of Angels' by Phil Rickman, or who put the Vicar in the cider-vat!

I'm not sure which Apple-orchard I have been hiding in, or how this series has managed to elude me, but thank-you Anna Maxwell-Martin for bringing it to my grateful attention!

Having been enthralled by the brilliant 'Midwinter of the Spirit' on ITV, it was only natural that my inner- Magpie was going to swoop on any hint of bookish interest! What luck, that this series has been so fruitful in my ignorance. I'm not sure how a series, with a female exorcist as it's protagonist, could have escaped my attention- my only defence is that my to-read pile has reached ridiculous levels and probably requires some form of intervention. Thank you Merrily, for ably adding to this unidentified mass with such rigour.

You would think that 'Midwinter of the Spirit' (which was deliciously creepy and managed to send shivers down cynical old moi's spine) would be the natural place to start, in terms of an introduction to this series. However, it is preceded by 'The Wine of Angels' in series order. I will forgive this confusion, as Midwinter is where the exorcism formulates. Miss Maxwell-Martin so ably portrayed the complexities of Merrily's character- her reluctance, her doubt and many human imperfections that I felt I could only do her justice by starting at the beginning and her introduction to Ledwardine (the parish at the centre of the series). In fact, a real strength of Rickman's writing lies in its ability to build interesting, but imperfect characters- allowing us to look beyond flaws at the whole person. I get the impression this concept will be explored, to great effect, as the series progresses: that considering the balance between good and evil within a person will mirror the spiritual forces that will also be explored in a more explicit way, by means of exposition.

Yet at its heart, this novel is a mystery, a crime to solve, which it does in a sleepy, somatising way (not through boredom, but through the gentle power of the prose). Rural Herefordshire comes to life, with all its menace and hidden intrigue revealed in such a way that it feels exciting. You get a real sense of a writer that observes his surrounding in great depth and borrows from it in his writing, as appropriate, to craft a believable narrative. Instead of a formulaic crime novel, you are left with a story of many layers and much to consider such as Merrily's faith; lineage and the interplay between families over many generations; how people deal with trauma; how people overcome their mistakes (or are shaped by others') and to what extent people can transform and evolve (amongst others). What this depth adds, is an interesting ensemble of characters, that you feel vested in. I for one, cannot wait to find out how Jane (Merrily's teenage daughter) devolps, especially in light of her more pagan abilities and leanings. Or Lol, the anxious and withdrawn former rock star, whom is inprisoned by his former mistakes and the nefarious hold his former manager extends over him.  You get the sense that much more is lurking behind the idyllic setting, and that Merrily has been sent for reasons yet unknown....

Some of this purpose is hinted at, in the way the Orchard holds the residents in its malign grasp, as the story progresses. Jane seems to be awakened by ancient forces and the residents show deference to ancient practices, that have lost their cultural purchase to the modernity we inhabit. An ancient darkness lurks at the periphery of the pages, never quite revealing itself, to us or Merrily and we never quite feel the reassurance our own lives offer precisely because of its setting. The hedgerows and ancient trees hold more menace than a knife wielding psychopath ever could (perhaps making the final denouement all the more powerful. Yet while the crime reaches conclusion, Merrily's own inner struggle does also and you find yourself more interested in the fact she has found her inner-strength and taken charge of her parish, in more ways than one. I for one, look forward to savouring the coming novels as I am sure you will if you give them a chance.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

'The Seed Collectors' by Scarlett Thomas or the vanilla-pod enlightenment mystery tour

Scarlett Thomas, I salute you! I salute your mastery of our lexicon. I salute your dedication to the research process. I salute the big questions your books always ask. I salute your evolving and exploratory approach to your writing. I salute your storytelling skills! If writing stories was my talent, I would be learning from the best at the University of Kent.

Thankfully, you are writing the sort of stories I long to read. Ever since being mesmerised by 'The End of Mr Y', I have been savouring your works and recommending them to everyone and anyone: including my Mother! How often, as an adult, do you read a book in which your imagination is so ignited that you actually feel it with all of your senses? The pages literally fizzed and the edges faded into a brown, circular vortex- transporting me (via some sort of literary black- hole akin to the tunnel Alice enters wonderland via) to the troposphere. It is a rare and accomplished masterpiece. 'Pop Co' asked big questions about the way our consumerist, capitalist monstrosity of a society operates without losing an inch of the narrative pace it's gripping plot presented. The non-story approach of 'Our Tragic Universe' delighted me in its delivery and in the way it framed questions about the meaning our lives hold: is everything meaningless in the end? While all of these books are unique, they share a sense of mystery and intrigue, an ability to expose us to new concepts and philosophies that challenge us as readers and leave us ruminating for a long time afterwards: they all delight. You always have something valid to say and you say it well.

While 'The Seed Collectors' is of course different to your preceding works (as of course it would be) it does not disappoint. It's narrative flow reminded me a little of Woolf and her 'stream of consciousness' approach, something that really frees the writing up and allows you to deliver your meaning more effortlessly. Your study of ethnobotany infuses your writing on many levels. I am in awe of the many unusual and unexpected characteristics that plants manifest, in their battle to survive and how their deployment mirrors the human need to survive or perfect themselves as writ large in the vanishing nature of your generational protagonists. You do not shy away from exploring primal or base desires in your characters, despite the fact this may repel the audience- yet when you consider this more deeply, it mirrors the need we have to reproduce and propagate, which plants do unashamedly. Is the walking palm really so different to Charlie Gardner? Both are adapting to the challenges that are thrown their way.

Yet where plants are purely primal, the boundary that is created in contrast to human motivation is where the greatest opportunity for rumination occurs. In stages, the novel explores the secrets that all the characters hold: the private drives and insecurities that they manifest in their own destructive ways, instead allow us to transcend our human existence and consider even bigger questions relating to spirituality and enlightenment. This is tightly mirrored in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the parents of the main protagonists and their quest for a pod of magical propensities.

This exploration of enlightenment blew my mind all the more, in light of the synchronicity it threw upon my own current experiences. A friend recently felt compelled to purchase us both a book, despite it creeping her out for reasons unfathomable: 'The Autobiography of a Yogi'. She felt it was something to do with my deceased Gramphs- made all the more uncanny by the fact it was a book I had been thinking about, of his that I had perused many years before, one that felt like it spoke with some omnipresent voice in its exploration of enlightenment and had forgotten even what it was called.To my furtive imagination, this book feels like a gift from the other side: a focus from the most enlightened person I have ever encountered. I can imagine my yoga loving, Transendental Meditational Gramphs whispering 'read this girl, it will put you on the right path'. Imagine the resonance then, of being stuck at the point of Yoganada's work that states that life is an illusion (a maya), a prison of your own making that you must see beyond in order to reach enlightenment and immortality (not being distracted by the material world) when reading 'The Seed Collectors'. Perhaps these books are my own mysterious pod, indeed missing manuscript and the key to my own enlightenment! 

Perhaps I do have a story in me after all... An imperfect girl finding her way in an imperfect world, just like the Gardners. Namaste 

Monday, 26 October 2015

'The Watchers' by Neil Spring or tin foil has never been this scary..

Well that was a whirlwind of a page turner! I have to say that it blew me away. Perhaps I wasn't as excited as I should have been, with it's enticing premise, due to my prior excitement being dashed on reading 'The Ghost Hunters' (whose premise ticked every box on paper, but just didn't work for me). But what a read! From reading the first chapter, I could not put it down. I devoured it in under 24 hours, which is testament to its narrative power. Neil Spring is clearly one to watch, and reminds me that it always pays to give writers you think you should like another shot (David Mitchell's 'Cloud Atlas' to 'The Bone Clocks' being a case in point- couldn't get into 'Cloud Atlas' but 'The Bone Clocks' is up there with the greats).

I have to say that the thought of reading a spooky story about Aliens/Ufos really isn't my bag. However, the enticing cover, with its monochrome lighthouse drew me in (proving that covers can help you judge a book). On realising that the novel drew on the very sightings in 70s Wales that had terrified me, as an impressionable infant, sneaking reads of my Gramphs' Unexplained magazines, I was sold. Alongside the Enfield poltergeist and Gef the talking mongoose (fertile subject matter Neil could ably explore) events in the Havens totally shit me up, sleeping with the covers pulled over my eyes style. These days I am able to style my fear out much better, most likely due to desensitising myself to all things supernaturally scary by reading/watching/exploring anything with a spooky theme! Rarely do things scare me. While Neil succeeded with giving me chills, perhaps this novel worked so well because it didn't attempt to neatly define itself as one genre. The suspense that pulsed through it carried the story, and while lingering on some of the alien interplay would have suited my own tastes, not focusing deeply on them did not detract from the story in any way.

That said, the menace of Stack Rocks really seeped through, as did Taid Llewelyn's Religious fervour and the hostility of a remote and insular community. You could really feel the wind chimes rattling, warning of an unknown threat descending. Despite some outlandish concepts, such as animal mutilation and secret societies deep in Whitehall your belief is totally suspended and they are woven together so effortlessly that you don't question the explanation offered by way of the developing plot. Roberts own doubts and psychological clouding, due to blocked childhood trauma, are a great device for delivering the story. His confusion and probing mirrors ours as the audience and allows us to assess the evidence as it is revealed in increments, allowing us to remain vested in a plot that could seem ridiculous if delivered in a more straightforward manner. This to me, highlights the crux of how Spring has developed as a writer- showing confidence and mastery when he delivers his story and delivering more than a great premise. While 'The Ghost Hunters' will clearly make great TV, this has the potential to be even better! I can't wait to see what Mr Spring will deliver next

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Man in the Picture- or never wanting to visit Venice, ever...

'The Man in the Picture' by Susan Hill

Well, I actually started my halloween- themed reading challenge.

I will let you take that in for a moment.

Yes, I am still in shock myself! Like all keen readers, though, I did manage a few detours through that precarious and teetering to read tower. In fairness, my three distraction reads could end up replacing some of the titles I have pre-selected to make up this challenge, so we shall see how the next week fairs. Jeanette Winterson's 'The Daylight Gate' was suitably creepy, like the Trio of Witches from that Scottish play writ large but transported to Pendleton Hill; Phil Rickman's first novel in the Merrily Watkins series (thank you Anna Maxwell-Martin for introducing her so well on screen), 'The Wine if Angels' was an eerie countryside crime caper centring on its Vicaress protagonist's spiritual struggles in her new diocese and it's twisted apple trees; and Neil Spring's 'The Watchers' blew me away, in the way I wished his previous work 'The Ghost Hunters' had, with its gripping exploration of extra-terrestrial events in South Wales circa 1970s (a subject that has creeped me out since reading about it in my Gramphs 'Unexplained' magazines).

More of that later, though. Susan Hill, what can I say? She expertly builds a sense of unease, the shiver down the spine, the raised hair on the arm and the furtive need to lift ones head, quickly, from the pages of the story to check that no one or no thing is watching you as your pulse quickens and your eyes widen. She expertly frames the tale within a Jamesian tradition. Elderly fireside narrators do not seem cliched, when you are so skilled at delivering your story that the dread builds in increments. Indeed, the plot works so well precisely because it is placed in a time just beyond the reach of modernity. Where darkness speaks its threat more intently, because it cannot hide beyond the comfort of bustling 24 hour living. Where it can be banished by the flicking of a light switch. Or the dialling of a mobile phone. So much more effective than the sepia- tinged halo that a gas lamp enables. Mobile telephony is like having your own personal exorcist to hand! One click fear banishment.

Yet Theo Parminter and ultimately the unsuspecting Oliver, to whom Theo unburdens his creeping curse onto via the sharing of his uneasy story are not afforded our luxuries. Instead their fears are heightened by the debilitating frailty and infirmity faced by the ageing, by the deserted rooms of University halls and the streets emptied by both the dismal weather winter promotes and the festive setting we associate with such haunting tales. In many ways loneliness is the real fear that underpins this tale, and is perhaps why Hill is usually so effective at writing haunting Novellas. She always allows us to relate to the fears she explores and roots them in reality, rather than opting purely for the fantastical. This is why we can swallow notions of haunted pictures (or dolls, or country houses, or marshlands for that matter) because the fears she explores are precisely our fears!

Yet, while I appreciate the ominous threat the picture contains and the mysterious desire that is expressed by an unknown party wishing obtain the painting, I have to say that the denouement was far from satisfying. Much like Germaine Greers' recent controversial comments about why Caitlin Jenner wishes to be a woman (for her part she proffers that she wishes to steal her step daughters fame for herself), I feel that this story also touches on some unexplored part of a complex issue that needs further consideration or explanation to be properly understood. Just as Caitlin Jenners' transformation, likely has more complex roots (something I think Greer is touching on but not exploring on in enough depth) so too does this tale with its focus on a scorned woman who is not satisfied with destroying the lives of those who have wronged her, but continuing to destroy the lives of those who own the painting. This aspect of the tale did not work for me, especially as it exactly mirrors the malign malice so expertly explored at Eel Marsh House. To rely on this again, instead, for me as a reader anyway, made me focus too much on the intent of the malice and in turn the writers exploration of it. More precicesly, why does Hill chose to explore it again? It makes it seem obsessive, yet the focus is misplaced from story to authoress. Perhaps this is the point. For my part, I would have preferred further clarification as to why this woman would want to harm others, especially when she has enacted her revenge. It also throws into question why Oliver is burdened by his jovial and much loved Professor to such devastating effect. Did he attempt to unburden himself? Are we all a little dark and twisted?

Unsettling and unclear, this uncanny tale leaves questions unanswered and you will wonder all the more about all our motivations and how deep they really are and the Venetian masks we wear...

Monday, 14 September 2015

Spooky book challenge: R.I.P. X

I have decided it is time to overcome my technological ignorance and really tackle writing something on my blog. Avoidance has lasted 8 months already, and enough is enough . Somehow, I hope, I have signed up for a really exciting book challenge that I have admired and coveted taking part in, for several years: R.I.P. X. This year it is being hosted by the Estella Society. The idea is to select a level (one, two, three or four- or perhaps even the short story or screen versions of the challenge) and then read or watch your selected texts, between the 1st of September and 31st October 2015. Knowing that  I get so excited about the lead up to Halloween, that I selected it for my sons' birth date will go some way towards communicating the relevant level of glee that this prospect imbues me with! I urge any fellow lovers of all texts that go bump in the night to sign up too ( just not in the style of Bradley Cooper's window smashing book-flinger in Silver Linings Playbook).

While my enthusiasm may eclipse me and render it overly-ambitious, I am keen to sign up for R.I.P.X one, R.I.P. X short story AND  R.I.P. X screen. Forgive me now if I don't manage all three, as my blog attests, I have good intentions, but......

So what to read? I am part way through the brilliant Scarlett Thomas' 'The Seed Collectors'. I've waited years for her latest after being blown away by 'The End of Mr Y' and loving 'Our Tragic Universe' so I can't quit now. And I'm reading 'Brideshead Revisited' for book club, which needs to be finished pronto. The rest of the teetering and excessive to-read pile can go hang.

First choice will have to be: 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' by Ray Bradbury. Having used the opening paragraph with students, to explore setting a spooky scene I have been tempted ever since but not got round to it. It looks right up my street and the perfect halloween-esque read.

Next up: 'Bellman and Black' by Diane Setterfield. Sounds like the perfect mix of gothic and intriguing. I loved 'The Thirteenth Tale' and hope this one follows suit. Will I regret including this in my time-strapped schedule? Or will I be blown away?

Now this is getting hard, my to-read pile is beckoning me. Wilkie Collins' 'The Woman in White', 'Westwood' by Stella Gibbons... Talking of Stella, you must give 'Starlight' a try, it brilliantly creepy and beholds you despite depicting a less than salubrious way of life amongst poverty-stricken elderly tenants in a ramshackle 1950s urban cottage. A real unexpected gem!

I am going to have to sneak a cheeky Susan Hill in here, despite still feeling disturbed post 'Printers Devil Court'. She is the Queen of atmosphere and the best person to unsettle me at this time of year. I'm a bit worried that I have nearly exhausted her back catalogue, but needs must 'The Man in the Picture' it will have to be. 

Number four, will have to be David Mitchell's' upcoming offering 'Slade House'. I pray they don't push release back as I will be cutting it fine (out October 27th). Being a relative newcomer to the Mitchell altar, after being blown away by 'The Bone Clocks' I cannot wait to get my mitts on his latest, supernaturally slanted offering. It sounds like my perfect book- which I thought I'd found in 'Bone Clocks'. His site has the following to say 'Down the road from a working-class pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you'll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won't want to leave. Later, you'll find that you can't....'  It sounds like it will follow the same tight structure with a vast cast, that he is famed for- but with the right element of malice.  Any book that is referred to as 'a Dracula for the new millenium, a Hansel and Gretel for grown ups' was always always going to jump to the front of my to-read mountain. Thank you Anthony Doerr!

R.I.P Short story, will have to take in some of the Robert Aickman I still haven't found time for, despite really enjoying the stories in 'Dark Entry'. It blends Hammer Horror with a sort of black humour that befits it surprisingly well. Perhaps I will dip into Mary Elizabeth Braddon, too.

R.I.P screen, will have to take in 'Housebound' a quirky Kiwi horror that has caught my eye. I recorded 'An Inspector Calls' yesterday, too and I am interested to see how well it has been adapted...

Wish me luck, I think I will need it!