Book Review: Fireside Gothic

imagesA recent acquisition for Christmas was Andrew Taylor’s Fireside Gothic, a title bound to appeal to me. Christmas is a time for reading ghost stories by the fire, with a well-documented tradition, with Charles Dickens and M R James being the most well-known participators. It’s a tradition I like: Christmas may be warm and cosy, but it also brings nostalgia to the fore, allowing us to reflect on times past. The nights draw in, and as we sit by the fire – even in modern centrally-heated houses – the darkness pools outside and contains hidden threats. Human nature loves the thrill of fear, and so the ghost stories come out at Christmas. Also, as Marina Warner suggests in No Go the Bogeyman, sometimes naming our fears acts as a way of warding them off; the stories present not just a thrill, then, but a way of exorcising our demons. Recently I read one of E Nesbit’s ghost stories, and a selection of Christina Rossetti’s ghost poems, as part of a festive evening at the Birmingham Midland Institute, and the creepiness of the stories is brought out well by nineteenth-century buildings, dimly-lit.

On Christmas Eve I sat by the fire at home, port in hand, reading Andrew Taylor’s book. Taylor is well-known as a historical crime novelist, and these novellas play to a similar concept, but with an added supernatural frisson. The first story, ‘Broken Voices’ is very much in the style of jamesM R James: two schoolboys are left in the care of an elderly teacher over the Christmas holidays, and listen to his stories of the nearby cathedral, and eventually take action. The description of the cathedral at night is excellent, with some truly heart-stopping moments, and while the ending isn’t entirely unsuspected, the creepiness of the story stays with you. The second story, ‘The Leper House’, is modern, with a man on the way home from a funeral breaking down and visiting a cottage, which later has vanished. The story turns out to be a rather unexpected tale of revenge. The final tale, ‘The Scratch’, seems more modern still: a soldier returned from Afghanistan wreaks havoc with a couple’s lives, unintentionally, and with a twist at the end which I didn’t see coming.

The atmosphere of all three stories is well-drawn, making them perfect fireside reading as they encourage you to draw nearer to a source of warmth and light. There is a chill to all of them, both in the supernatural creepiness and in the weather and cold buildings marleys_ghost_-_a_christmas_carol_1843_opposite_25_-_bldescribed. Being a Gothic purist, I’m not sure how much I see them as Gothic; perhaps, in the modern tradition, which defines it more loosely, they are, but the contemporary inclination to label anything ghostly as Gothic offends me. A ghost story need not be Gothic, though it can be: it is the combination of many things which makes a work Gothic (see here for further ranting). I think these stories are more traditional ghost stories than they are Gothic, then; they show little of Gothic’s usual preoccupation with societal issues, for example. They are, however, particularly Gothic in one aspect: their preoccupation with place, and with buildings. The first story is clearly the most traditionally Gothic, with a questioning of faith whilst taking place in a cathedral; the second, the building which may or may not exist is central to the unravelling of the plot, and in the third, the shed and a cave which the soldier experienced in Afghanistan are paralleled. Place is important for Gothic, especially when it is rooted in historical events or experiences, and this Taylor draws on effectively.

I’m nit-picking in saying I don’t think these stories are completely Gothic, however: they are worthy inheritors of a tradition of English Christmas ghost stories, and an evening by the fire reading them is not an evening wasted.

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An Evening with M R James

Old HauntsI do like M. R. James’s stories. They are terrifying, though often perpetually obscure, and delight in the macabre and the terrifying. James (1862-1936) was an academic, a medievalist and bibliophile who spent much of his life at Cambridge, and most of that in libraries. There is an aura of the obscure, arcane dustiness around him and his work, though he was also a man with a wicked sense of humour and an interest in the mysterious, the supernatural and the downright terrifying. Many of his stories feature a protagonist not unlike himself: a professor, librarian or antiquarian of some sort, who investigated a little too much, was perhaps a bit too curious, and suffered the terrible consequences of this. There is something terribly English about James’s writing.

He liked to gather his friends to tell them his ghost stories, especially in the winter MRJames1900months when the nights were long. Yesterday evening I went to the Birmingham Midland Institute (my second home at the moment) to a performance of Old Haunts, by Don’t Go Into the Cellar Victorian Theatre Company. In the Members’ Room, dimly lit, ‘Monty James’ sat in a large leather armchair and told us some stories, with just a few props, and some special effects. His manner was perfect – it’s the sort of thing that could easily become horribly twee, but he had just the right mix of menace and jocularity as he told us ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad’, along with other tales and chatty digressions. The script also included some of James’s own thoughts on the writing of Gothic stories, which I’ve used in teaching James:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.

Whistle_and_I'll_come_to_you_illustrationThere is certainly nothing ‘mild and drab’ about James’s stories or the performance. There were plenty of shocks – being suddenly plunged into darkness, hearing terrible screams, flashes of light and so on – it reminded me of the spectacle of Victorian shows, from spiritualism to conjurers, who enjoyed the effects on their audience much as ‘James’ did in Old Haunts. There were plenty of people visibly jumping with shock last night, but it’s not just about thrills: James’s stories make us draw closer to the light for fear of the dark, a primal sense that we need both the horror and the warmth to feel fully alive. There is something joyous in that, which the character of James clearly revels in, and which Gothic literature always indulges to the utmost. Victorian performance, like Victorian literature, particularly sensation literature, asks us to be fully involved emotionally and intellectually, because this full participation makes us vulnerable and therefore more susceptible to its effects. Don’t Go Into the Cellar seem to know this and play on it, and it works brilliantly, especially in such an intimate atmosphere as a small, crowded, dimly-lit Victorian room.

Gothic at Christmas

I have written about visiting Strawberry Hill House before, but when I visited this week with students taking my Gothic module, the house was beautifully decorated for Christmas – perhaps this isn’t very Gothic, but it was done with some atmospheric touches (Christmas hats on statues, little knitted robins, etc) that I’m sure would have appealed to Horace Walpole’s sense of humour. The house is always a wonderful place to visit, and it was great to take students there: the module begins with Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and how this (rather daft) novel starts the behemoth that Gothic literature has become. (You can read my students’ module blog here). The guides did a great job of exploring how Walpole’s fascination with early Gothic architecture was translated to his house and then to his writing. Here are some photos of the day.image1

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X-Ray Audio

IMG_2393Over the weekend I went to have a look at a very unusual exhibition, hosted by Vivid Projects in Digbeth. ‘X-Ray Audio: Forbidden Music Bootleg Technology 1946-1964′ explores the way in which bootleg music flourished in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The exhibition includes a number of different approaches to distributing music, including beautiful flexi-discs and objects which look nothing like a record. The objects displayed were collected by musician Stephen Coates and photographer Paul Heartfield, and are, as the exhibition flyer points out, examples of the (often surprising) aesthetic of low culture. Most interesting, though, was the X-Ray discs. Bootleggers ‘repurposed used X-ray films to copy forbidden jazz, rock and roll and banned Russian music.’

The exhibition was full of images of bones: the X-ray discs have a ghostly, unexpected and rather Gothic appearance that is both disturbing and beautiful. In the context of this exhibition, the X-ray films become art, projected onto the walls, shown on slides, as well as displayed in cases. The exhibition information describes them thus:

They are images of pain and damage inscribed with the sounds of forbidden pleasure, fragile photographs of the interiors of Soviet citizens overlaid with the ghostly music that they secretly loved.

It’s a fascinating metaphor for the required secrecy of bootlegging that these discs contain images of people that are rarely seen. A broken bone here, a skull there, these are the secret interiors of people, and, though macabre, they are also strangely beautiful.

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Book review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

I must adjacksonmit, I bought and read this book entirely on a whim. Recently republished by Penguin Modern Classics, I idly read an excerpt on the Penguin website and decided I deserved to read something for fun. Besides, it sounded Gothic, and I have a bit of an obsession with Gothic castles. Shirley Jackson is a cult name in modern Gothic fiction, I think, but although I’m aware of her short stories and, most famously, The Haunting of Hill House, this is the first of Jackson’s books I’ve read, though I’m interested to read more now.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, known as Merricat to her family. There aren’t many of her relations left, though, because they were all poisoned several years before the start of the novel. Merricat and her sister, Constance, live alone in the Gothic Blackwood house, isolated because of the local conviction that Constance was a murderer. The sense of loneliness combined with the remarkable family unity of Merricat, Constance and elderly Uncle Julian, living a peaceful but deeply peculiar life barricaded into the house is brilliantly evoked: early on we see Merricat going into the village, suffering the stares of the neighbours as she changes her library books and buys groceries, and the disdain in which she holds them and the fear and suspicion they emanate towards the Blackwoods sets up a creepy atmosphere. This is heightened by the very gradual discoveries that the novel allows us to make.

The house itself, the castle of the title, is hugely significant. I’m always telling students that the castle is virtually a character in Gothic; the castle is ‘where Gothic happens’, and provides a metaphor for both the bodies and the minds of the characters. This is equally true here. The events of the novel are focused entirely on the house, as a ‘safe’ place away from the threatening outside world, and yet it is also the scene of murders, anguish and – it becomes increasingly clear – complex psychological disturbances. The house is both source of life and shelter to the Blackwood sisters, and equally a place of darkness and danger, and as the events of the novel unfold the house itself undergoes dramatic transformations (but I don’t want to give too much away). Merricat’s obsession with her home becomes clearer as her unique and idiosyncratic narration explains the rituals and forms of magic with which she attempts to defend the house from the outside world, and though she is clearly an unreliable and rather disturbed narrator who seems much younger than her eighteen years, she is also, in her combined innocence and naive madness, both appealing and convincing. In this, the castle parallels her psychology.

Shirley_Jackson_PortraitThe threat from the outside world appears much greater than that inside, however, when a long-lost cousin appears and tries to persuade Constance to resume a normal, public life. Castles offer claustrophobic spaces for terrible deeds to happen, thresholds to cross which lead to knowledge one might be better off not knowing, and represent the history that always comes back to haunt us in Gothic literature. This is all true here: it is all the more eerie for the happy moments of homemaking which the sisters share; after all, when something attacks the place where you live, where you think you are safest, what can you do? And this is even more of a problem when that threat comes from within.

What is particularly surprising, perhaps, is that this is also a wickedly humorous novel. Merricat and Constance are likeable, though clearly highly unusual, and they play jokes on each other and other people (for example, offering them cups of tea which they imply might be poisoned). It also raises questions about fear and what we are, or should be, afraid of; how we demonise those we don’t understand, and how happiness is sometimes found in the most unexpected places. As an example of mid-century Gothic, it’s both a period piece and timeless, and I couldn’t put it down.

Victorian Gothic at Knightshayes

P1000886On the way back from holiday, we stopped at Knightshayes, a National Trust-owned house which appeals to me in every way. It’s a wonderful example of Gothic Revival architecture,designed by William Burges. The house has a complex history of design which makes it particularly interesting: Burges was commissioned to design the house in 1869 by Sir John Heathcoat Amory, and completed the exterior by 1874. Burges, inspired by Pugin’s work and writing, and eccentric friend of the Pre-Raphaelites, was deeply immersed in the medieval aesthetic, which manifested itself in a European-influenced form of Gothic in his Burgesbuildings. (As you can see from the photographs, he was so medievalised he even had the costume). He was friends with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who wrote of him:

There’s a babyish party named Burges,

Who from infancy scarcely emerges.

If you had not been told,

He’s disgracefully old,

You would offer a bull’s eye to Burges.

P1000892All this suggests that there was something unrestrained and perhaps difficult to work with about Burges, and certainly this seems to have been the case for the Heathcoat Amory family. Though the designs he made for the interior look marvellous to me, the high Victorian Gothic interiors were too much for the more conservative family, who consequently sacked Burges and brought in John Dibblee Crace,whose family worked with royalty (and on the Houses of Parliament) and were thus considered likely to be more respectable interior decorators. They were wrong; what Heathcoat Amory wanted was a solid, respectable, traditional house to establish himself as a country gentleman, and this fashionable, colourful (the less charitable mighP1000865t say garish) form of décor didn’t suit. From 1889 onwards, the house was transformed as patterned ceilings were covered up, fireplaces and panelling removed, and so on. Luckily, nothing was thrown away, but it was mostly chucked carelessly into cellars and basements. Eventually, the process of restoration of Gothic design (re-Gothicising?) began, and late in the 20th century was completed.

The house has had an interesting history: it has remarkable 20th century gardens, as well as having housed a family descended from a factory owner (apparently an excellent employer) who, along with his descendants, shaped the area in which they lived. It also served as a military hospital in the First World War and a rest home for servicemen in the Second. But to visit it now, P1000864with its remarkable woodcarvings, its quotations from Chaucer and inscriptions of different kinds, its stylised patterns on wallpaper and furnishings, it seems to echo William Morris’s home at Red House, built in 1860 by Philip Webb but with interiors by Morris and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which is perhaps less Gothic but equally medieval and decorative, adhering to similar principals.P1000869P1000868

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