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.