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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.

To the left of this blog’s main page, there’s a display of the most commonly used terms in the last thirty two reviews. With every reoccurrence of a search term, the display of that particular word or phrase begins to grow, to indicate how often I have mentioned it. Alan Moore’s name has been growing I noticed, so I thought I should actually write about something he has done.

A Small Killing was welcomed as a departure for the comic writer sometimes referred to as the Northampton Magus. No superheroes, no deconstruction of American comic book tropes, just a simple story about a man who works in advertising looking back on his life. Oh and giant insects.

Timothy Hole has landed the contract of a lifetime, marketing a major cola in Russia. A successful advertising creative based in New York, he decides to go on a holiday to his hometown of Sheffield, so he can recapture his spark and come up with some ideas for the campaign. While he’s managed to achieve a lot in his professional career, his marriage to his college sweetheart failed, due to an affair he had with an artist named Sylvia. Timothy obsesses about whether or not he was at fault, more troubled by his later being dumped by Sylvia than his betrayal of his wife Maggie. Going over and over the events of years ago in his mind, he finds himself unable to focus on his job. Then a mysterious boy appears and Timothy is compelled to follow him. At first he catches glimpses of the figure in the distance, but soon he begins to suspect that the boy is trying to lead him into danger, even kill him. When Timothy flies to London he discovers the boy is somehow already there, a phantom presence taunting him.

Timothy’s troubled thoughts are relayed to us by Moore’s precise prose, while Zarate conjures up nightmarish crowded scenes – a party filled with advertising colleagues, a long queue at customs, a packed plane journey, a London pub exploding into violence – to contrast with the main character’s inability to think about anyone else. The people in his life are excuses for his own failings, somehow always at fault regardless of what he has done. The title refers to the little sins in our past that we cover up, never revealing to anyone no matter how close we are, in the hope that the guilt will somehow disappear.

This being Moore there’s a healthy amount of intertextuality as well. Timothy finds himself relating to Nabokov’s Lolita, although he can’t decide if he’s the predatory Humbert Humbert, or the eponymous innocent girl. Nabokov’s book was written as a twisted love letter of sorts to America, summing up the Russian émigré’s feelings about the country he had come to call home. Timothy, conversely is going to Russia to sell images of capitalist excess to the Russians, marketing Americana to them and disregarding the socialist imagery he was so fond of as an over earnest teenager –

“Blue jeans. That’s it, isn’t it? Blue jeans is it. Whatever the West means to them, that’s what we associate Flite with…They want to be American. It’s obvious. No point second-guessing their needs. We just sell them ours. Our culture. Our appetites, our..”

A Small Killing itself was Moore’s break from the over commercialised American comic’s scene, so choosing an ad-man as his protagonist is certainly interesting in that respect. Babylon by Victor Pelevin is an interesting contrast, being a Russian novel about the divide between advertising and art.

Zarate’s artwork is beautiful, matching the reflective tone of the writing by resembling the drawing of an adult who never stopped using crayons. The imagery is childlike, yet disturbing also. The abovementioned crowd scenes are filled with freakish grotesques and animalistic facial expressions. Timothy himself is a needle-thin adult version of Harry Potter (although this predates Rowling’s books by some time), surrounded by overweight bodies and skinhead boozers. The boy he keeps seeing is depicted with a wicked, mocking smile, that perfectly captures the puckish spirit of the character.

Alan Moore is one of the most important creators of the last thirty years. If you want to avoid the cape and tights brigade in sampling his work, you should check A Small Killing out. A confident, heartfelt reflection on past mistakes and the broken promises we make to ourselves when we are young.

“You are about to see one of Carole Lombard’s best films: Mr and Mrs Smith. It’s the only comedy Hitchcock ever directed.” The angel took a long drink of soda.

-“Who’s Hitchcock?”

“Have some popcorn”

– “No, thank you.”

In the fading light, the angel turned slowly to Ling. For several moments his eyes became enormous, pinwheeling fire everywhere.

“Have some popcorn.”

Well it has been a heavy couple of days here on the blog. Weighty themes, arresting imagery…..teddy bears altered in strange and disturbing ways (seriously, James Ellroy, get help!). So for today I chose Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love. I am a big fan of his whimsical present-day fables and will mention some more about his writing later, but first off – the plot!

Benjamin Gould is a young man in the prime of his life. He loves to cook, in fact his book shelves are filled with recipe books. His kitchen is his true home and he enjoys many different kinds of tea. He’s good with his hands and rather than sulking when things don’t go his way, he will often begin working on a new table, or chair. He’s also a young man who has already endured tragedy, sadness and loss – but he’s happy now, because he’s met the love of his life. The strangely named German Landis is a ray of sunshine, a beacon of warmth and kindness. She inspires him to be a better man, to leave the bitterness of his past behind. One day she suggests they adopt a dog from the pound, but not just any mutt. They should choose the dog that has languished there the longest. Ben enthusiastically agrees and rushes out. This is what life with German is like, spontaneity and good will as natural as breathing.

Unfortunately for Ben, he dies on the way home. Even more unfortunately for Ben, German, even the dog, Pilot, and the angels in Heaven who run the whole life and death game….he doesn’t notice he has died.  And from here, things  begin to get strange.

The Angel of Death assigns a ghost named Ling to follow Ben and discover why he has not passed on. Somewhere in his mind is the reason for his strange survival. Maybe somewhere buried deep in his past is the secret of immortality, making Ben very important indeed. Important enough to scare the Angel of Death himself near out of  his wits. For if humans can suddenly learn how to master their own mortality, maybe that changes everything. Maybe in this upside-down world angels and ghosts have reason to fear humans!

Jonathan Carroll has a gift for making the mundane seem magical. In a story about life and death, angels and monsters, he makes it seem so easy. This book was a breeze to read, a light confection that felt like an old Hollywood romance. Cinema is something of a passion for Carroll, as well as dogs, so I know he’s good people. It reminded me a little of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, where air force pilot David Niven refuses to die and accept his heavenly award, as he has just met the love of his life, played by Kim Hunter. In Carroll’s universe dogs and ghosts speak to one another amiably, the Angel of Death is obsessed with Carole Lombard movies and your past literally can catch up with you. Maybe even ball you out for not being more careful.

The very first scene of the novel is just delightful. Ling, Ben’s ghostly ‘caseworker’, is fretting over a sumptuous feast for German, whom she has also fallen in love with. As Pilot the bemused dog and her only friend looks on, she prepares a breakfast smorgasbord of salmon, eggs Benedict, scones, soufflé, even fine coffee. The woman of her dreams arrives in the apartment, sits down at the table and is completely oblivious to the phantom feast laid out before her. It’s a beautifully sustained sequence.

One of my favourite books is Carroll’s The Land of Laughs, his first published novel. It also deals with memory, loss and death. If you read it you may come away with a newfound interest for pit-bull terriers. Seriously the man loves dogs. Whenever I encounter a book of his on a shelf I snap it up. The Ghost in Love is a treat for anyone looking for a story filled with wonder and whimsy. Enjoy.

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