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Where does all that fluff

come from for heaven’s sake?

They say it’s flakes of skin.

Take care – someone might

collect it all

and make little models

of you.

I have stated before on the blog that I am reluctant to review poetry for ‘A book a day…’, because I feel it cheapens the value of it. Poems should be enjoyed in quiet reflection, the reader should take their time to let the meaning of the verses sink in. Unfortunately time is one thing I do not have. Still I have made exceptions while writing this blog for two reasons. Firstly I enjoy poetry and want to include it here, despite my misgivings; and secondly I believe modern poetry especially is something that should be celebrated more.

Linda Coggin – who according to the publisher’s bio starred in Ken Russell’s Gothic, which is such a wonderfully weird film (though not up there with his demented take on Bram Stoker‘s The Lair of the White Worm) that she is immediately awesome in my eyes – presents a short collection of poems that are drawn from ordinary life. The poems also exhibit a notable quirkiness, a welcome skew on day to day events.

The opening quote chosen above is taken from a piece titled ‘Fluff in the Ideal Home‘, which begins with a list of household objects and with each verse makes these things seem more lifelike, ending with the admonition to take care – in case of some voodoo animation coming into play.

‘Dead Man Walking’ eulogises the second hand clothing of dead men that has gone on to have new life after their owners are deceased. Once again there is this curious notion of object, ordinary items, becoming invested with the stuff of life.

Death is also ordinary, the small mercies that can be offered to the dying – ‘We made small gestures/ of comfort/ water on the lips/ morphine in the veins/‘ – but also how a life can pass out of the world without any impact. ‘Alice Dunn – an obituary‘ describes a simple existence within a small village community, that began in a house numbered four and ends two doors down at number six. The poem ends with the line ‘It must have been the gypsy in her soul.

‘Job Exchange‘ describes the roles people play in their lives, sometimes in conflicting and at times in secret.

The janitor, who was really

a poet

pushed a perambulator in iambic pentameter

In ‘Entirely Spider‘ a woman is transformed from a lonely arachnophobe to a courageous defender of her children from that same fear. Becoming a mother has taught her to appreciate the small life of the spider, who is also raising a brood. It is a wonderful little fable disguised as a poem. Not as a Friend has the poet compare herself to her own mother, trying to imagine if she had known her as a child, would they have become friends.

but I can recognize in the pictures

the shape of my mouth

the way you stand awkwardly

on one leg like I do.

So in a way I had been there

‘Lilith’ is a departure, which describes the casting out of Adam’s first wife as a liberation -

She watched soft, compliant Eve

smoothing Adam’s bed

Lilith is occasionally utilised as an anti-patriarchal symbol, her insistence on coupling with Adam on top being the reason for her rejection. Coggin has her be transformed into a bird, but feel relieved not to have to submit to Adam – and by association his male descendants.

Coggin’s poetry is both incisive and quirkily humourous. Well worth investigating.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

“And you did get into the coffin?”

“I had no choice. I begged Lestat to let me stay in the closet, but he laughed, astonished.”

Confession time folks. It’s my birthday in ….ooh, six hours. So my wife and I treated ourselves to a nice bottle of Verdelho mid-way through my reading of this book. I am slightly tipsy.

That being said, I think I’m in the perfect position to review this book. It is, after all, a bit dull.

Sorry this review seems to have started early. Let me take a moment to explain the plot.

Louis is the son of  a wealthy French family, with a Louisiana plantation near New Orleans to his name. He feels bowed down by guilt after spurning his younger brother’s religious visions, compelling the family to sell their property in America and return to France to fight the revolutionary scourge of anti-monarchist atheists. When his brother dies mysteriously, Louis refuses to reveal to his mother and sister that madness was the cause of his death. He confesses this to a priest, who blithely dismisses his brother’s religious ecstacy as the result of possession by the devil.

This leaves Louis primed for seduction by the vampire Lestat. Callous, profligate and in need of property, the vampire chooses him in order to gain access to his wealth and status. While Lestat has the appearance of a man of style, he has no head for money. Louis, in effect, once transformed into a vampire becomes manager of his sire’s financial affairs, investing the monies stolen from his victims astutely to provide for them. Immortality has its own challenges, such as a ready access to capital.

Eventually he begins to tire of Lestat’s vain and selfish behaviour, and seeks to go his own way. The two vampires become rivals, with the latter deciding to transform a five-year old girl into a proxy daughter for their undead family.

“I want a child tonight. I am like a mother…I want a child!”

Claudia becomes a companion to Louis, encouraging him to investigate the origins of vampires. They travel to Europe, discovering only haggard  revenants, with the secret of a vampire retaining any semblance of a conscious self seemingly an accident of Lestat’s invention. Until, that is, they come to Paris and find the famous Théâtre des Vampires.

I am sorry to say I did not enjoy the experience of reading this book at all. It is incredibly frustrating. At times Rice‘s plot fascinates – Louis’ ruminations on damnation inform an interesting perspective on religious faith; his relationship with Lestat is reminiscent of Bram Stoker’s tortured association with Henry Irving – only for these passages to give way to interminable ramblings on the pain and suffering of life as a vampire. It is not even internally consistent. Rice establishes that the undead are perfect beings, preserved in time having expelled any human functions upon the moment of conversion. Then there is a passage when Louis is described “defying the sweat which had broken from every pore”.

Of course I have not mentioned the ‘interview’, of the title. Louis, it turns out, has approached a young man, referred to throughout as a ‘boy’, to record his testimony as to his existence as a vampire. With the religious subtext of the book, this interview comes to resemble a secular confession. One of the highpoints of the novel is Louis’ confrontation with a priest. Disillusioned after years of living in fear of damnation, he finds himself standing in a church, gazing at the marbled statues of saints and heavenly powers. Suddenly he realizes the pomp and decadence of the Catholic Church and takes out his frustration on the priest present. It’s a rare moment of passion in amongst the mumbled misery and depression of this novel, a sign of how powerful Rice’s themes could be if applied properly.

As for Lestat, the hero of a number of Rice novels, he appears to be nothing more than a vain, vulgar and impudent child. I have no desire to read another book describing his adventures.

A sad disappointment overall, frustrating and for the most part, quite boring.

Do I dream? Cried Manfred returning, or are the devils themselves in league against me? Speak, infernal spectre! Or, if thou art my grandsire, why does thou too conspire against thy wretched descendant, who too dearly pays for – Ere he could finish the sentence the vision sighed again, and made a sign to Manfred to follow him Lead on! Cried Manfred; I will follow thee to the gulph of perdition.

The Castle of Otranto is a book that has achieved immortality courtesy of first year English students in college. It is a literary virus, passed on from one generation to the next, thanks to this –

It is generally regarded as the first gothic novel, initiating a literary genre which would become extremely popular in the later 18th century and early 19th century. Thus, Castle, and Walpole by extension is arguably the forerunner to such authors as Charles Robert Maturin, Ann Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier.(wiki)

It is a footnote, a book no one ever reads outside of completionists and academics. So while I knew of it, I never bothered to investigate. I was surprised to find that I liked it.

Walpole’s tragic tale begins with Manfred the lord of the castle Otranto preparing for his son’s wedding. He is eager to continue his family line and despite the sickliness of his heir Conrad, rests all his hopes on his union with Isabella, the daughter of a missing lord with a rival claim to his lands. Manfred’s grandfather inherited the castle and its territories from Alfonso. His claim to it is weak and he fears the return of Isabella’s father from the Crusades. He is also aware of an obscure prophecy, which hints at a dire fate for his family line.

On the night of the wedding tragedy strikes when Conrad is found crushed beneath a giant helmet. The castle is thrown into confusion – although secretly Isabella is relieved as she felt little love for her arranged match. Manfred flies into a rage when a mysterious peasant points out that the helmet belongs to the statue of Alfonso. He orders the stranger to be kept captive beneath the helm that crushed his own son. This macabre command shows how his rage has begun to warp his judgment. Manfred in desperation to avoid fate decides on a new course of action. He commands his pious wife Hippolyta and daughter Matilda to remain in their chambers and asks Isabella to join him. When they are alone he attempts to force her to consent to marry him. He blames his wife for producing an unsuitable heir and has decided to divorce her. Isabella refuses and flees in terror. Manfred becomes a man possessed and orders the castle searched to find her. As the night continues there are further signs of the supernatural within the grounds. Spirits and agents of God’s divine will makes themselves known, condemning Manfred’s desperate madness.

Reading Walpole’s novella it is obvious the influence it had on books such as Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin, or Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. There are corrupt lords and foul deeds hidden behind castle walls. Unnatural portents and the very real threat of damnation. What surprised me was the influences contemporary readers can detect in Walpole’s own novel. The plot bears a slim resemblance to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, once again due to palace intrigues and lordly haunts. Furthermore though there are occasional comic scenes, with servant girl Bianca and the idiotic duo of Jaquez and Diego stretching Manfred’s patience to breaking point with their babble. These scenes of aristocrats growing increasingly impatient with their ‘domestics’, owes a lot to Shakespeare’s comedies, such as the encounter between Dogberry and Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing.

There is also doomed romance and melancholy princes, as well as a silent knight whose presence threatens Manfred. All in all a gripping yarn.

It deserves better than to be a footnote in a college text book. Jan Svankmajer appears to agree.

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