The Phantom of the Opera, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Nightmare Abbey

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I recently started back at university, and I won’t have much time for reading or blogging for the next year. Still though, I’ll try to get a few posts up whenever I get the chance. Here are three books that weren’t as good as I hoped they would be.

The Phantom of the Opera – Gaston Leroux
Signet Classics – 1987

This one was actually pretty good for most of the book. I just felt that the ending was a let down. I read it a good while ago, and I have actually forgotten how it ended. I could look it up for the sake of this blog post, but I don’t think that my fragile heart could bear to go through that disappointment again.
Although the characters in here are annoyingly see-through, I think that the biggest problem for this book is living up to the reputation that Hollywood has created for it. The Phantom of the Opera, as an archetypal villain, is in the same league as Dracula or Frankenstein. Unfortunately the book that he comes from is not nearly as good as those of his rivals. It’s still fun though, and I probably enjoyed this the most out of any of the three turds.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson
Golden Press – 1978

I had a cool Jekyll and Hyde board game when I was a kid, and I grew up imagining that the book would be as much fun as that game. Unfortunately, it isn’t. It basically tells the same story twice: once from the point of view of Jekyll and once from the point of view of Hyde. The plot is framed around a twist, but  I can’t imagine that there are many readers who don’t already know who’s who of this tale. This was another book that I read on a plane, so maybe it’s better than I remember. Still though, I’m not going to reread it.

Nightmare Abbey – Thomas Love Peacock
Penguin Classics – 1986
This one isn’t all that bad; it was just quite a bit different to what I expected. It’s often included in lists of classic Gothic literature, and while it is fairly morbid, it’s just not that spooky. Not a lot happens in it either; it’s mostly dialogue. It’s not an all-together bad read though; I definitely got a few laughs out of it. My edition also includes another novel by the same author. I probably won’t bother. Much of the inspiration  for that terrible Gothic film by Ken Russell came from this.

There you go faithful readers; three turds in the bowl. I’m sure this post has been even more disappointing than any of the books reviewed. Que sera, sera.

Zanoni – Edward Bulwer-Lytton

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P.F. Collier – 1892

Last year, I ordered a set of books by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It’s a 9 volume set of his most popular works. All the books are double-paged, and each volume contains a few different works.  I have a pretty big reading list, and it took a few months to get around to any of these battered old tomes, but almost as soon as I started reading, I knew this set had been a wise purchase. If you find a cheap copy of these books, buy them immediately. I spent about three times the cost of the books on the postage, but it was still worth it. (UPS are a dirty shower of thieving bastards!)
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A pretty cool cover. N.b. the fasces and the obscenity.

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LOL

These books were published in 1892, and it shows. The spines are all cracked and the binding is falling apart. I had to sit down at a desk and carefully turn each page so as not to cause further damage. Now one might think that this would have been detrimental to my enjoyment of these texts, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I felt so cool, patiently leafing through the pages and inhaling their aged musk. One can only imagine my delight on finding that the text that I started reading was about a ciphered manuscript given to the author by a mysterious Rosicrucian whom he had met in an esoteric bookshop. All my dreams were coming true at once!

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The frontispiece of Zanoni. It depicts Gaeto Pisani and his daughter, Viola. (I think.)

The manuscript tells the tale of Zanoni, an immortal sorcerer and member of an extremely exclusive secret society consisting of only two people. He tries his best to help out a pair of young lovers, but he fails miserably and ends up making their lives incredibly difficult. The youngfella thinks that Zanoni is really cool, and tries his best to be like him. Zanoni is fairly chuffed, and invites him to join his club. Unfortunately for everyone, Glyndon, the young man,  doesn’t get past the initiation ritual for the order, and ends up spending the rest of his days getting stalked by a particularly nasty entity called ‘the dweller of the threshold’.

Lytton was a hugely popular writer in the 19th century, and apparently the theosophists were big fans of his. Helena Blavatsky introduced a version of the dweller of the threshold into her teachings. She described it as an extension of one’s astral body that results from the remnants of past lives. Other occultists have appropriated the dweller in other equally silly ways. Van Morrison, everyone’s favourite adept of easy-listening, had an interest in the occult at some stage, and he used one of these bastardized versions of the dweller for the topic of one of his songs. Before I go any further, I want to declare my extreme and utter hatred for Van Morrison. I remember being a kid and having the tape of Van the man’s greatest hits playing in the car every fucking time my parents took me on a drive. I didn’t know what it was called, but I referred to it as ‘sweaty music’ because that’s how it made me feel. I actually listened to his song a few times before I wrote this review, and it made me want to vomit and shit diarrhea at the same time. Anyways, the lyrics to Morrison’s song are about some kind of benevolent source of spiritual inspiration. Bollocks to that. In Lyttons work, the dweller is a seriously nasty piece of work:

Its form was veiled as the face, but the outline was that of a female; yet it moved not as move even the ghosts that simulate the living. It seemed rather to crawl as some vast misshapen reptile; and pausing, at length it cowered beside the table which held the mystic volume, and again fixed its eyes through the filmy veil on the rash invoker. All fancies, the most grotesque, of monk or painter in the early North, would have failed to give to the visage of imp or fiend that aspect of deadly malignity which spoke to the shuddering nature in those eyes alone. All else so dark,—shrouded, veiled and larva-like. But that burning glare so intense, so livid, yet so living, had in it something that was almost HUMAN in its passion of hate and mockery,—something that served to show that the shadowy Horror was not all a spirit, but partook of matter enough, at least, to make it more deadly and fearful an enemy to material forms. As, clinging with the grasp of agony to the wall,—his hair erect, his eyeballs starting, he still gazed back upon that appalling gaze,—the Image spoke to him: his soul rather than his ear comprehended the words it said.

“Thou hast entered the immeasurable region. I am the Dweller of the Threshold. What wouldst thou with me?”

Deadly, isn’t she?

I won’t say much more about the plot, as I don’t want to ruin the story on you. Being honest though, this is not a great book. There are some fairly big flaws here; it seems a bit like the author was making up the plot as he went along, and the detailed parts on the French revolution are neither interesting nor particularly relevant. Some editions use the subtitle; ‘A Rosicrucian tale’, and this is fairly apt: there’s probably a lot of symbolic and esoteric meaning between the lines that will only become apparent to patient students of hermeneutics, but I’m not really concerned with that shit. This is an old book about wizards, spirits, demons, and babes with heaving bosoms, and I thought it was deadly.

Le Fanu’s Short Stories – Madam Crowl’s Ghost and In a Glass Darkly

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Sheridan Le Fanu – Madam Crowl’s Ghost & Other Stories / In A Glass Darkly
Wordsworth Editions – 2006 and 2008

Here are two collections of short stories from one of my favourite writers. I would recommend the Oxford edition of In A Glass Darkly, as that one contains nice notes at the back. Wordsworth editions are bare bones and rarely contain annotation. They are cheap however, and I own quite a few of them.

In A Glass Darkly is the better of the two collections. It’s been a few years since I read it, but I distinctly remember the joy I felt when the evil monkey appeared the first story. It’s also great because it contains lesbian vampires in a vampire story that predates Dracula. I think my favourite story in here is the novella: The Room in Le Dragon Volant. It’s not as spooky as the others, but I really like Le Fanu’s writing

Madam Crowl’s Ghost is a nice collection of ghost stories compiled by none other than M.R James. I read this one more recently, but I read the first two stories on a transatlantic flight and didn’t end up enjoying them as much as I would have were I to read them on the couch at midnight with a cup of peppermint tea. The stories in here are collected from different sources, and the quality and tone varies quite a bit. Some are great though, and most of them are set in Ireland. You can imagine my sheer delight on finding a story in here about a man from my hometown who shares my name. I loved this book, but the other collection is probably a better place to start if you haven’t read Le Fanu before.

Maldoror and Poems – Le Comte de Lautrémont

Maldoror

Penguin – 1978
The full title of this work is “Les Chants de Maldoror”, and it is supposedly a collection of “songs”  written by an extremely nasty individual. Imagine all of the bad guys of gothic literature rolled into one and you’ll get an idea of what Maldoror is like as a person. He’s equal parts Manfred and Melmoth, but he also has a little Dracula and Curval in him too. He hates man, god and almost everything else. Sounds pretty cool right? Well some of it definitely is. The parts where he recounts his crimes and insults god are  damn sweet. He isn’t just a little bit naughty either; he’s full on evil. He boasts about brutally torturing people and he’s a bit rapey too. I’m surprised more metal bands haven’t used the name Maldoror. I can only find one black metal band from Italy with the name, and they look absolutely shit.

This wasn’t a book that I rushed through. I enjoyed the protagonist’s horribly nihilistic outlook, but I read the book in July, and it felt wrong to sit down with it when the sun was shining. I had to wait until the hour of 12 before delving into this hateful work of misanthropy. Also, the prose is quite dense, and it was a bit of a chore to get through. Some of the sentences are ridiculously long (the narrator comments on this himself), and there’s no underlying plot to the book, so it can be difficult to follow.

Nobody knows much about Le Comte de Lautrémont, but his real name was Isidore Ducasse, and he died at 24, only a few years after this book was written. I would imagine that parts of this book are autobiographical and reflect the author’s outlook. There are brief incidents in the text where a hitherto unknown character appears and is treated as if he has been part of the story all along. These parts struck me as probably having meaning to the author alone; perhaps they are masked accounts of his own experiences. That’s one of the difficulties with surrealist writing though; the author is under no obligation to explain himself.

And this book is quite surreal. There are some truly mental parts in it. Some of them are entertaining; I particularly enjoyed Maldoror’s dalliance with a shark, but many are confusing and are made downright unenjoyable by frustratingly convoluted prose. This confusion is not accidental though, and the difficulties facing the reader of this book are undoubtedly deliberate. One of the opening lines of the book reads; “It is not right that everyone should read the pages that follow; only a few will be able to savour this bitter fruit with impunity.” Maldoror does not want his readers to enjoy these songs; he wants them to suffer. This is basically a deliberately discordant black metal album in the form of a book.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. It’s a cool idea; I just don’t think it was executed as well as it could have been. In saying that though, this is a translation, so maybe the fault lies with Paul Knight. Then again, maybe I just didn’t get it. This is definitely a book that you have to ‘get’ to enjoy. It’s surrealist fiction, so a load of it is utter bollocks that makes no sense. I would say that the grisly parts make it worth reading, they’re gross, funny and metal as fuck, but don’t expect to enjoy the whole thing. If you find yourself having a great time while reading this book, you are definitely doing it wrong.

This edition also contains Lautrémont’s poetry. Apparently he had gotten all of this negativity out when he wrote Maldoror, and his poems are supposed to focus on more positive things. I didn’t read them. I probably never will. The edition that I am reviewing also has a deadly cover. It’s from part of this painting by Anton Wiertz.wiertzL’Inhumation précipitée

The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

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I recently reviewed Hans Holzer’s Gothic Ghosts. It was an absolutely atrocious piece of garbage, but in retrospect, I think that one of the reasons that book seemed so shitty to me was the fact that I had been reading it on my commute into work each morning while simultaneously spending my evenings reading the ghost stories of M.R. James. Holzer is shit at best, but in comparison to James, he is the shit of a shit.

Ironically, James’s ghost stories, while hugely entertaining and infinitely better than Holzer’s tripe, are also quite formulaic. They’re nearly all about elderly, educated, asexual gentlemen who find some kind of ancient artifact whilst on a vacation in a rural town. This ancient whistle, book, photograph, map, key, dollhouse or manuscript will prove to be haunted, and terror will ensue. That might seem unenjoyably predictable, but it’s the atmosphere and sense of impending doom that make these stories so entertaining. You know from the start that something fucked is going to happen; it’s the build up that allows the ghouls to get right in under your skin. I found audiobook versions of some of the stories on youtube, and listened to them whilst lying in bed.  While doing so I took great precautions to avoid the icy grasp of any skeletal hands that may have been reaching up from underneath my bed. I kept my arms, legs and head safely under the blanket.

These stories are magnificent. The Tractate Middoth, A View from a Hill, A Warning to the Curious, and Wailing Well might be my favourites, but most of the stories in here are top notch. There are a few stinkers; Two Doctors is crap, and The Story of a Disappearance and Appearance, although it does contain a chilling nightmare sequence, is fairly disappointing. The book I am reviewing here is the Collected Ghost Stories, not the Complete Ghost Stories. James wrote 4 other ghost stories that are not included in this publication. They are:
The Experiment
The Malice of Inanimate Objects
A Vignette
The Fenstanton Witch
They’re not James’s best, but they’re all worth reading if you like the stories in this book. A quick google search will sort you out.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing James or his tales, as there is an abundance of information on both him and his writing online. I really enjoyed the BBC documentary on his life, and the M.R. James Podcast is good for additional information on each of the tales.

I’ve already mentioned that the cover of this book is fairly shit, but the real disappointment with this edition is the lack of notes. James was an exceptionally well-read individual, and he makes reference to many peculiar characters, events and texts. It would be really nice if the book included short explanations of these obscure references. I’m not sure if other publisher’s editions have notes sections either, but I know that the Wordsworth Series are crap for this kind of thing. I read the Oxford edition of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which had extensive helpful notes, but the Wordsworth edition that I bought has none. (Incidentally, M.R. James was a huge fan of Le Fanu.) Also, it bears repeating that this is not the complete collection of his ghost stories. I don’t know which is the best edition of James’s tales, but I know for sure that this isn’t it.

Either way, this gets an 8.5/10. It’s an extremely enjoyable read, and one that I will surely come back to in the future.

Gothic Ghosts – Hans Holzer

Pocket Books – 1972
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This book is absolutely terrible. It’s a collection of about 20 ghost stories, all of which are supposedly true. There are no sources given, and all of the stories follow the same formula. The following could be substituted for any of the included accounts:

Marjory, an art student, always knew that she had occult powers, but she never realized the full extent of her ESP until she moved into the old house on Pooey Street.

Number 15, Pooey street was a Victorian mansion. It was beautiful on the outside and luxurious on the inside, but there was a catch! Upon entering the mansion, any individual possessing any variety of paranormal sensitivity would feel a rumbling in their guts and immediately thereafter, they would void the soupy contents of their bowels into their britches.

Marjory was able to adapt to this sticky state of affairs by constantly wearing an adult diaper. The house was cheap and spacious, and Marjory was a poor student in desperate need of a studio for her art. A smelly bum and a dose of nappy-rash was a small price to pay for such a perfect home. Marjory soon adapted to life in the old house, and things seemed to be going swimmingly for her. That was until she saw the figure on the stairs!

One night, she awoke from her slumber and arose to fetch a glass of water from the kitchen. She drearily walked out of the bedroom and turned to walk down the hall. There, on the stairs in front of her, floated a ghastly specter! A full body it was not; only a repulsive, mouthless face that stared menacingly at Marjory who was now frozen stiff at the top of the steps. The face had two hairy cheeks and a singular brown eye that seemed to be winking horribly at Marjory. Marjory wondered if it was the ghost of a cyclops who had died of conjunctivitis and mumps, as the gaping eye was smeared with a rotten brown crust and the cheeks were rotund and fleshy. A small trunk-like appendage arose from under the eye and sprayed Marjory with a rancid milky ectoplasm. That was when Marjory fainted and fell down the stairs.

She awoke in the hospital days later. She had suffered severe brain damage and was never able to walk again. It just goes to show that an old ghost never learns new tricks!

Obviously I got a bit carried away when writing that. If the book was full of stories of that caliber, I’d be giving it a solid 10/10. No, this book is nowhere near entertaining. It’s basically the same stupid story of a dead scullery maid looking for attention, told twenty times over.

I can’t remember how this piece of trash found its way into my book collection. I either picked it up at a library sale for 50 cents, or perhaps the ‘Gothic Ghost’ of Hans Holzer planted it in my collection in order to have it reviewed. Sorry Hans, this is fucking terrible. I’m giving your shitty book a 1/10.

The Irish Gothic – Uncle Silas, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dracula

irish gothic Well it’s Saint Patrick’s day on Tuesday, and what better way to celebrate Irishness than to review some classic Gothic Literature from the Emerald Isle. I won’t go into too much detail as all three of these novels are absolute classics, and I expect anyone who is following this blog to have read them all.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Dell – 1978

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Dorian looking a bit scaldy.

This novel is great. It’s been a long time since I read it though. Either way, I won’t hear a word said against our Oscar. It’s a pity he didn’t write more novels. 7.5/10

Uncle Silas – Sheridan Le Fanu
Oxford – 1981
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Howiye Maud?

This is one of my favourite books of all time. It’s standard Gothic fare really; a young girl loses her parent and she has to go live in creepy uncle’s house. The chapter in which Maud, the protagonist, encounters her repulsive governess for the first time had me shitting in my britches. The way that creepy bitch comes down the hill is absolutely CHILLING.

My edition of the novel is nicely annotated, and there is one note that I found particularly amusing. “414 a clumsy old press: in Ireland and Scotland, press = cupboard” Visiting my in-laws would be so much easier if I could get that printed on a t-shirt.

Anyways, this book is magnificent. If you like Jane Eyre or The Mysteries of Udolpho, then this is the book for you. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, then sorry, but we can’t be friends.

Dracula – Bram Stoker
Penguin – 1994
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Nice ‘tache Drac. (Sweet diddys too!)

Well, this is obviously one of the greatest novels ever written. This was also one of the first books that I read after graduating from university. I had just spent four years reading books that had been selected by other people, and to have the freedom to choose a book according to my own tastes was tremendous. I remember actually looking forward to going to bed at night, just so I could get stuck into this absolute masterpiece.

I’ve always had an interest in ghosts and monsters: I grew up watching Ghostbusters and reading Goosebumps, and I’ve always preferred horror films to any other genre. I was expecting to enjoy this book, but I was not expecting to be frightened. Well, I was; there are parts of this book that are damned scary. There’s nothing in here that I hadn’t seen in a hundred movies; but reading Dracula, I realized that all of those movies had used this book as a template to produce their scares. I was spooked good and proper when the lads start to go missing on the boat as the count is lurking in the shadows. Pure deadly.

There’s also some weird sexiness to this novel. That’s not just something that Hollywood added to make the film versions more successful. There’s a lot of heaving breasts in here. Mina and Lucy sound like absolute babes. The count is a kinky one too, check this out:
With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker’s hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension; his right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood, and a thin stream trickled down the man’s bare breast which was shown by his torn-open dress. The attitude of the two had a terrible resemblance to a child forcing a kitten’s nose into a saucer of milk to compel it to drink.
Dracula! She’s a married woman, ye dirty bowsy!!! And you’d think he’d be satisfied with those lovely vampire wenches he keeps in his castle. I’ll tell ye now, if I was a single man I’d have no bleedin’ bother lettin’ them have a little suck, wha?

Anyways, I’ll give this a perfect 10/10. If you haven’t read this book, you have no reason to be wasting your time reading this blog.

There are other fantastic works of Gothic fiction to have emerged from Ireland. Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer might seem like a glaring omission from this post, but I have a plan to review that later on in conjunction with another book. I’m also planning to review more of Le Fanu’s works in the near future.

I think it’s rather interesting to note that all three of the authors reviewed in this post were Dublin protestants. (Maturin, who was incidentally Oscar Wilde’s great-uncle, was also a Church of Ireland clergyman.) These three books were also written within 50 years of each other. You’d wonder what the Church of Ireland were putting in their non-transubstantial eucharist to get their congregation to be such creeps. I’ve read that Dracula represents Stoker’s alienation from the largely Catholic Ireland, but I reckon it was just dodgy proddy communion wafers.

These books are all savage. Fuck going to the parade this St. Patrick’s day; read one of these smashers instead.