strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
(Still working through my 2015 reading, here...)

This is the first ever self-declared Gothic novel, in that from at least the second edition onwards it bore the subtitle 'a Gothic story'. But we are at the birth of a genre here, and the meaning of the word 'Gothic' has changed a great deal since. By it, Walpole meant primarily 'medieval' and 'Romantic' - not dark, anguished or (obviously, as they were yet in the future) Victorian. The castle of the title is not remote, storm-battered or half-ruined, but the living seat of a southern-Italian nobleman and his family, inhabited by princesses and visited by knights trailing pennants behind them. And while there are supernatural goings-on, they are more in the vein of the fantastical elements in medieval stories like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight than the lurking, horrible Things from the Other Side which the word 'Gothic' tends to evoke now. Indeed, Walpole presented it on first publication as a translation of exactly such a newly-discovered medieval Romance - not as his own work at all. (Wikipedia has reasonable background details.)

All of this means there are quite a few assumptions to unpick for the 21st-century reader who approaches this book through the filter of later Gothic literature. Is it worth it? I think yes, but more for the sake of understanding the history of the novel and the Romance generally than the genre of Gothic specifically. There are Generational Feuds, Terrible Tyrants, Lost Heirs, Mistaken Identities, Tragic Misunderstandings, Unrequited Loves, Forbidden Loves, Crossed Loves, Wronged Women and Pious Heroes. Probably most 18th-century novels are much the same, but I think this may actually the earliest English novel I have ever read right through, so I am mostly familiar with these tropes and devices through later works, where they are usually being subverted, given new twists or knowingly satirised. Indeed, even here Walpole is doing something quite new by introducing fantastical and supernatural elements into the mix. And it would be unfair to suggest that the work is stuffily self-important - there are touches of humour, too, particularly (à la Shakespeare) revolving around the lower-class characters. But the melodrama setting is definitely higher, and more in earnest, than I am used to. As such, I found it a fascinating insight into the world of the 18th-century novel - and particularly the reasons why young ladies were so often forbidden to read them!

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This is the second Hammer Dracula novelisation I was able to get hold of, and I read it during my holiday to Romania in May / June. I took copious notes on it at the time, in a notebook which I was also using (in a different part of it) to record my experiences of the holiday as a whole. On the day when we travelled to Actual Dracula's Actual Castle, I got confused about which part of the notebook was supposed to be for which purpose, so that the section which is meant to contain my Prince of Darkness notes now at one point reads like this:
Shandor would normally offer the hospitality of the monastery to everyone, but stops himself and decides to insist the 'wagoner' must stay outside because of the situation with Dracula. Knows nothing from the outside must be carried in.
The mountains are starker now - patches of bare, sheer rock. But still hugging the river.
A simple mistake, obviously, but somehow also a beautiful symptom of exactly what I went on that holiday to achieve - a deliberate blurring of the boundaries between the magical world of Hammer's Dracula and the reality of the Carpathian mountains. Certainly, I couldn't have picked a more perfect setting for reading the novel than my seat on a coach winding its way through the actual Carpathians, or a more perfect mind-set for exploring Actual Dracula's Actual Castle than having just put down the book to get out of the coach.

I haven't been able to check this novel against the film's original shooting script, but I am reasonably sure that, like the Scars of Dracula novelisation, it was written from the script before the film came out, rather than by sitting and watching the film. One of my reasons for thinking this is that the town known as 'Carlsbad' in the film is called 'Josefsbad' in the novel. It seems very unlikely that a writer whose brief was to create a faithful novelisation of the film would make a change of that sort, but details like that quite often were changed during the production of Hammer's films. So it's probable that 'Josefsbad' is the name used in the original script, and thus also the novel. Similarly, some of the details of what the castle looks like are different in the novel from the film - e.g. the travellers pass through a gateway before reaching the main door, and the main hallway contains a curved staircase. Again, it's unlikely that a writer working from the film would change these details, so they must reflect the descriptions in the original script, as opposed to Bernard Robinson's actual sets, which represent a compromise between the script descriptions and what was feasible with the space and budget he had available.

If I'm correct about this, the novel goes some way towards helping to resolve one of the 'controversies' around this film - namely, the issue of whether the original script gave Dracula any dialogue or not. Christopher Lee claimed the script did include dialogue for Dracula, but that he thought it was awful and refused to speak it, whereas Jimmy Sangster (who actually wrote the script) said that he never included any dialogue for Dracula in the first place. Sadly, Christopher Lee was famous for saying things in interviews which were neither plausible nor internally consistent (put less politely: lying), and Sangster's claim is certainly supported by the novel, which indeed does not include any dialogue for Dracula. But only a look at the actual original script could resolve this 100%. If it is held in the archive recently acquired by The Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre at De Montfort University, then checking should be trivially easy now - but I haven't come across anyone saying that they've looked, or what they discovered if so.

Meanwhile, although this novelisation again follows the story of the film very faithfully, Burke clearly made a conscious decision to structure his telling of it in a slightly different way, and in particular to present each of its nine chapters as much as possible from the viewpoint of a single character. I found this very effective, especially for chapter 4, which presents the ritual resurrection of Dracula entirely from Klove's point of view, and chapter 8, which covers everything from Helen's attack through the monastery window to Dracula's abduction of her from Diana's point of view. The effect is to give us something quite similar to what Angus Hall did with the Scars novelisation - that is, insights into the inner worlds of these characters of the type which can't quite be conveyed on screen - but in a slightly more sustained way. For example, we learn a lot in chapter 4 about Klove's experiences during the many years while he has watched and waited for an opportunity to resurrect his master and the extent to which he really does think of the resurrection itself as a religious ritual, while chapter 8 of course puts us inside Diana's head during Dracula's attempt to make her drink his blood from a wound which he scratches into his chest. This scene actually isn't played quite the same way as in the film - in the novel she eventually finds the will to resist, which she most certainly does not in the film. But in any case, Burke's selection of his point-of-view character for both chapters is extremely effective and adds powerful extra dimensions to the story.

I particularly enjoyed the final, climactic chapter, covering the chase from the monastery to the castle and Dracula's final demise. It had a lot of multi-sensory descriptive detail - the fading light of the sun, the dusty road, the foaming horses, the shriek of wood and iron as the run-away wagon crashes on the castle bridge - and a real sense of action and urgency. Indeed, a lot of the details in this chapter made it much clearer to me than the film has ever managed how much this sequence was supposed to recall the climatic chase at the end of Stoker's novel, with Dracula likewise being carried along in a coffin on a rough wagon through a winter landscape, and the vampire-hunters catching up with him just as the sun is about to set.

Dracula's icy demise made much more sense as described in the novel, too, freed as it was from the budget and special-effects constraints at work on the film. In the film, the final fight takes place on a solid platform of ice, and the audience is asked to accept that Dracula is somehow stupid enough to end up trapped on the only loose chunk of that ice, rather than just running the hell away as soon as the first cracks appear, and climbing up the castle wall to escape. But in the novel, all of the ice breaks up, and very quickly too. Charles just about manages to escape to one side and climb the bank, while on the other Dracula tries to edge along the last pieces of remaining ice towards a protruding buttress of the castle wall, which he could use to climb up off the ice to safety - but is prevented from doing so by a final collapse which plunges him into the water.

In fact, this scene as described in the novel reminds me somewhat of the resurgence of spring and vitality after the winter frosts which happens at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and helps to defeat the White Witch. There is a sense that nature itself - not just Father Shandor's rifle - is playing its part here, throwing off the dark grip of winter to let life through once again and defeat Dracula. I'm sure all of this was lovingly described and envisaged in Sangster's original script, and I entirely understand why realistic breaking ice was rather beyond the effects capability of the production crew. But anyway, it's nice to finally understand what is meant to be happening during an ending which I've always found very frustrating and annoying while watching the film. Perhaps I'll be able to watch it more charitably in future, now that I know what they were trying to convey.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
In 1976, Anne Rice published Interview with the Vampire, a novel presented in the form of a vampire's taped confessional, reporting on his life and experiences from his point of view. One year earlier, Fred Saberhagen had done much the same, except that his vampire was Dracula.

I don't think either can have been aware of the other's work until after they had completed their own. Interview with the Vampire was an intensely personal novel whose gestation period stretched back to a short story written in the late 1960s, and its manuscript was complete by 1974. I haven't been able to find an equivalent project history for The Dracula Tape, but obviously the fact that it was published before Rice's novel means Saberhagen is very unlikely to have had any opportunity to read hers before submitting his. Rather, I think we are seeing the combined effect of a) the explosive potential of taped conversations being rather in the air thanks to the role they had played in the Watergate scandal, and b) the general shift towards sympathetic portrayals of vampires at this time, also visible a year later in the heavily romanticised 1977 Broadway version of Dracula starring Frank Langella (later turned into Dracula 1979). In other words, it's simply two authors responding to the same zeitgeist.

Another bit of zeitgeist which left its mark on Saberhagen's novel (though not Anne Rice's) was the publication of In Search of Dracula by Radu Florescu and Raymond T. McNally in 1972. This was the first publication to argue that Bram Stoker based his Count Dracula directly on the Wallachian Voievod Vlad III Dracula, and to make the real-world history of the latter accessible to Anglophone readers. It inspired a whole wave of creative works fleshing out the connection between the two after its publication, including the BBC radio play 'Lord Dracula' which I listened to recently, this documentary starring Christopher Lee and many others. So it's no big surprise to find that Saberhagen's Dracula explicitly is Vlad - though this doesn't actually have very much impact on the detail of the novel, since its main concern is with the same time-period as is covered in Stoker's novel, several centuries after Vlad's human life-time.

The story which Saberhagen's Dracula relates, at once to a tape recorder and to the frightened great-grandson of Mina Harker and his wife, is simply that of Stoker's novel, but as experienced from his point of view. Saberhagen had obviously read the novel closly, and offers a nice subversive reading of it. We learn that his Dracula was genuinely trying to pass as human at the start of Jonathan Harker's visit to his castle, using the visit as practice in doing so before moving to the busy metropolis of London, but had underestimated how difficult it would be and found to his frustration and consternation that he kept failing at it - as, for example, when Harker cuts himself while shaving. Every ostensibly-damning detail in Stoker's novel is carefully explained - that wasn't a baby in the sack he threw to his three brides but a squealing pig; the wolves which appear at the castle door when Harker tries to leave are there to escort him safely to the main road, not frighten him back into the castle; Lucy dies not because of his blood-drinking but because she is given transfusions from the wrong blood group; etc. etc. Dracula himself only takes human blood with the person's consent (otherwise drinking from animals), he of course truly loves first Lucy and then Mina, and he and Mina eventually enter into a conspiracy to fake his death and thus throw the vampire-hunters off his scent.

As a flipped perspective narrative, it's pretty well done. That said, Saberhagen's prose is nothing like Bram Stoker's, and he does himself no favours by showing this up very starkly in the earlier parts of the story through extensive direct quotations from the novel, which his Dracula then deconstructs and retells. I understand why he felt the need to do this - basically the fear that people might not 'get' his rewritings if they didn't have the original account easily to hand to remind them of the story as Stoker had originally told it. But personally I'd prefer him not to have done it quite so much, even if he had been able to write like Bram Stoker. It felt to me like wasted space which could have been used instead for extra new story, and made the whole narrative feel too closely tied to the structure of Stoker's. I was also unconvinced by the relationship between Dracula and Mina, which seemed to be suddenly announced as a Great Love without any very clear basis that I could see - but this seems to be a common complaint for me with fictional love-affairs, which I have written about in relation to Dracula (1979) and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) to mention only the Dracula-related instances (it doesn't only annoy me in Dracula stories; it's just that I tend to write more about those than anything else).

Still, I'm glad I read it. I've known that this novel exists since 1994, because it has a detailed entry in a vampire encyclopedia which I bought in that year, and of course have been hungry ever since to hear Dracula's story from his perspective - but it has only been recently in this eBay-enabled age that I've been able to access a copy. It's certainly better than Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt's attempt at a similarly redemptive narrative, and is interesting for the place it holds in the ongoing evolution of Dracula fiction.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
Now I am going to attempt some book reviews. I am seriously behind on these. I read this particular book last February, and while that's not a problem in this case because it is a Hammer Dracula book, so I took detailed and obsessive notes about it at the time, that isn't true of everything I read in 2015. So this particular review will probably be ludicrously long, but others are likely to be rather brief.

Anyway, just as Target Books began producing novelisations of Classic Doctor Who TV stories in the 1970s, usually based on the original script rather than the broadcast version (not least because these weren't always available by the time the novels were written), the same thing happened for quite a number of the Hammer films. Not all were novelised, but of the Dracula series, Brides, Prince and Scars were done in this way; and of those, Scars was the one I managed to pick up for a reasonable price on eBay first. As it happens, I also managed to obtain a copy of the Scars shooting script, written by Anthony Hinds, around the same time, as an optional extra along with a book I bought from Peveril Publishing. So I was able to read the two against one another, as well of course as considering how they compared to the film.

As a result, I can be 100% confident that this novel was indeed written by working directly from the script. The plot and dialogue follow it exactly, and the descriptive passages in the novel often use the exact same wording as the descriptions of actions and locations found in the script (which, of course, unlike the dialogue, could not possibly have been taken from the film). Indeed, some of the location descriptions used in the novel don't match what was eventually shown on the screen (budget restrictions often led to scaling-down), but do match the original script. This isn't to say novel and script are identical, though. Hall was clearly at liberty to embellish, and in this spirit has taken some sequences described in the script in a slightly different direction from what was done in the film. He has also included some scenes that aren't in the version of the script I read at all - though they may have been in earlier drafts. Certainly, the version of the script I read has quite a lot of notes in it stating that scenes had been deleted or omitted, and sometimes that is exactly where the extra scenes appear in the novel. Both novel and script also confirm what I've read about Dracula's opening resurrection scene in various books about Hammer films - that it was added at the last minute at the request of Hammer's distributors at this time, EMI. This matches up with the fact that isn't in the script or the novel.

Another way in which both script and novel differ from the final film relates to the castle - and now that I've read them I finally understand what the film was trying to get at here in a way I never did before. In the film, we see the main body of the castle being set on fire early in the story, but then soon afterwards Dracula and Tania are living in the very same rooms perfectly happily, without any sign of fire damage. Dracula mentions that the beautiful furniture etc visible in the rooms is 'all that was left - after the fire', but we never see any visible signs of fire-damage. The script and novel both reveal what was meant to be the set-up, though - that the Great Hall of the castle had collapsed in on itself in the fire, leaving only two usable areas: the servants' quarters, where Dracula moves his remaining good furniture, and one bedroom, with the two connected only by slimy / charred / draughty corridors. This would have been really cool and interesting, picking up rather nicely on Stoker's original vision of Dracula living in visibly straightened circumstances, yet with the evidence of once-great wealth all around him, but it just wasn't followed through in the film - probably for the practical reason that the interior sets were reworked from Horror of Frankenstein, made just before this, while the exterior sets and long-distance models were developed separately. The result is that the exteriors and interior don't match up sensibly, and the interiors are all rather too grand to look convincingly like servants' quarters. That's just what they had, so - whaddayagonnado?

Comparing the novel to the film, Hall gives us a slightly more supernatural Dracula than what we see on screen. Right from the start, Hammer had elected to write out Dracula's ability to adopt anything other than human form for budget reasons - Peter Cushing's Van Helsing calls the idea that he can turn into a bat or wolf a 'fallacy' in the first film. With Scars, a sequence in the script describing a sleeping Dracula locking eyes with a bat which flies into his crypt is interpreted in the film as meaning that he has given the bat telepathic instructions, which it then flies off to obey, but in the novel Hall turns this into Dracula himself actually becoming the bat, and flying off to wreak his revenge on the local villagers directly. Similarly, as Paul stumbles through the forest after being kicked out of the village inn, Hall describes the mountain mist crawling down his collar as though it were alive - perhaps just atmospheric embellishment, but perhaps also meant to make us wonder whether it is actually Dracula or one of his vampire hordes who have temporarily adopted a misty form, and are checking him out as a potential victim?

Hall also proves himself good at creating a suitably Gothic atmosphere through his descriptions of rugged, inhospitable landscapes, vegetation and weather. He has to do this to create the right effect in the absence of Gothic-looking visuals, of course, but Hall's writing is successful enough to make some scenes distinctly more chilling than they are in the film. This is true for the afore-mentioned scene of Paul stumbling through the forest through enveloping mists, and for another one of Klove advancing on Sarah with ill intent towards the end of the story, which Hall makes ten times more obviously rapey than it comes across as on screen. (I'm not saying having rapeyness in stories is a great thing, but if you are going to do it, you should convey the horror as clearly as possible, which Hall does.) In short, Hall's novel is overall slightly better qua novel than the film is qua film - though, in fairness, Hall didn't have to come up with the original plot, so could concentrate more on stylistic matters instead when he wrote it up. Also, let's be honest, we are starting from a pretty low bar with this particular film. ;-)

This isn't to say he always had his eye entirely on the ball - after all, we are basically talking about a cheap paperback which was probably knocked out in no more than a month. For example, he gives us a big scene all about how tired Julie is because her last customers have stayed until 2am and she has then had to clear up after them before going to bed, only to be followed by dialogue two pages later about how no-one in her village will open up after dark. He also makes both Paul and then later Simon recognise the name Dracula, and know something of his terrible reputation, before they meet him - something which the film itself steers clear of, and is a mistake in my view. The logic of the films is always that the large towns which people like Paul and Simon come from represent the normal, civilised world, within which horrors such as Dracula are unimaginable, and that he can only flourish in out-of-the way villages where the combination of isolation, ignorance and fear allows him to get away with his terrible acts unchecked. If normal chaps like Paul and Simon know about him all the same, that begins to fall apart, which in turn erodes the very delicate balance of disbeliefs which allow the whole story-world to function.

On the other hand, Hall sometimes strives to smooth over unresolved plot peculiarities from the original script, including one which I hadn't even noticed. This came in chapter 15, when Hall seeks to explain why Simon and Sarah would hitch a ride in a farmer's cart when they go off to look for Paul, when they're clearly both from wealthy families who would have their own carriages. Hall's explanation is they think they'll get more response from the locals if they pretend to be a penniless couple - a nice idea, and it does more or less match up with Simon's attempt in the film to pretend they're students. Another possibility which occurs to me, now that I'm alerted to the issue, is that they are trying to hide what they're doing from both sets of parents, who would naturally worry, and might even insist on involving the police, who would then try to arrest Paul for his alleged assault on the Burgomaster's daughter.

Meanwhile, because he is writing a novel rather than a film script, Hall can offer us some insights into the inner lives of his characters. He does this for most of them, but it is particularly striking and interesting for Dracula, who is usually so aloof and impenetrable. E.g. at the start of chapter 10, when Dracula first sees Paul, we learn that he feels jealous of Paul for being young, human and vital. I'm not sure that's quite how I see Dracula, but it certainly has a basis in Lee's performances, in which he always attempted to convey what he called 'the loneliness of evil'. Hall also gives Dracula some considerable extra dialogue towards the end of the novel, especially when Simon comes face to face with him in his crypt having just discovered Paul's grisly fate. There are no deletions marked in the script I have at this point in the story, and I think it's unlikely that Hinds would have written such a long talky scene into what is more or less the climax of the film, so I think this must be original to Hall. But in a novel its very welcome to have the main protagonist and antagonist confronting one another properly, and of course more than welcome to have some extra lines for Dracula himself, who here shows us his arrogant (or self-confident, depending on your point of view!) faith in his invulnerability just before his fall.

Hall also makes the characters of both Julie and the Priest considerably more plausible than they come across on screen. In the case of the Priest, this isn't entirely Hall's doing - the Priest was already rather more convincing in Anthony Hinds' script than he comes across as in the final film, where he behaves so bizarrely (trying to stop the villagers attacking Dracula, wimping out for no clear reason whenever an attack does take place) that it is possible to read him as being in league with Dracula. In both script and novel it is much clearer that he is supposed to be a re-hash of the Priest from Risen, and as such is simply a weak and scared man with some traumatic memories. But Julie's transition from a plot avatar to a believable character seems to be entirely Hall's doing. Her dialogue and actions are much the same as in both script and film, yet the glimpses into her inner thought-world which Hall adds somehow give them a purpose and meaning which weren't at all obvious before. This is very definitely an improvement.

Finally, here is a list of small points of world-building detail which Hall inserts into the novel, but are not made explicit in the film or the shooting script:
  • Chapter 1 - states explicitly that the story is set in Transylvania, and that Kleinenberg is 10 leagues (i.e. 30 miles) from the village / castle area.
  • Chapter 7 - the border which Paul crashes through in the run-away carriage divides Transylvania into two self-governing states. This means than both Kleinenberg and the castle are in Transylvania, but also helps to explain the unwillingness of the police officers from Kleinenberg to go as far as the castle in their investigations.
  • Chapter 8 - the inn in the village near the castle is called the Castle Arms.
  • Chapter 21 - Dracula's coach is driven back to the castle from the village after Sarah and Simon have used it to escape by 'Klove perhaps - or one of his allies in the village'. Actually it can't be Klove, who was left behind in the castle and wouldn't have had time to catch up with Sarah and Simon and collect the coach. But the passing reference to Klove having allies in the village is interesting. I think he must, as indeed must Dracula, directly or indirectly, in every one of these films to exercise the control he does over the local area. (The film, by contrast, doesn't attempt to explain how the coach gets back to the castle, although from what we see in Prince it's reasonable enough to assume that the horses simply returned home by themselves, responding to Dracula's supernatural influence over animals.)
  • Chapter 22 - this provides more detail about Klove's connections with the local community, specifying that he has a cousin who is an apprentice to a local blacksmith, and who helps return Dracula's coach whenever it gets abandoned, which happens two or three times a year. This in turn suggests that Dracula uses his coach to lure victims to his castle on a regular basis, but that those schemes quite often go awry.
  • Chapter 24 - here we learn that Klove himself used to be an apprentice in Kleinenberg, where he regularly saw Sarah as a child, before being sold into Dracula's service. Also, since going into Dracula's service he has sometimes seen her there again on journeys to Kleinenberg. Backstory FTW! Personally I like the bit about Klove being an apprentice and Dracula regularly visiting Kleinenberg, but not so much the bit about Klove being sold into Dracula's service. Hall has some further dialogue which specifies that he is sold for money, but this is to completely overlook Dracula's supernatural powers, and thus what is distinctive and interesting about him as a character. He shouldn't need to buy servants when he can clearly use his hypnotic powers to compel them into loyal service for nothing, and / or the promise of dark powers to string them along in the hope of some eventual reward.
  • Chapter 26 - this offers a few glimpses into what might happen after the end of the story as filmed, in the form of a flash-forward set during Sarah's journey from the church which she has fled after the bat attack to the castle: "Later, when asked by the police how she had reached the castle, she was unable to give a coherent answer." Her fragmentary memories include trying for help at the inn, being thrown out, and riding a stolen horse up to the castle (as opposed to running / walking there, which is what the script and film have). It is of course perfectly obvious that Sarah and Simon would end up being interviewed by the police after their experiences in the castle, since the police are already in pursuit of Paul over his alleged treatment of the Burgomaster's daughter - but heaven knows what they would make of Simon and Sarah's story!

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
I was planning to write about my holiday to Romania today, but then I woke up after a much needed lie-in to the news that Christopher Lee had died, and the truth is it would probably never have occurred to me to want to go to Romania at all if it hadn't been for him. So I will write about him instead.

I've long known that I first saw him in Hammer's Dracula (1958) when I was eight years old, and thanks to the Radio Times online archive I've recently been able to pin that down a little more precisely. On 28th December 1984, BBC Two broadcast a late night double-bill of The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula. My Dad recorded it on our at that time very new and exciting home video recorder, and soon afterwards (I don't know exactly how soon, but within a few days or weeks, I think) decided that these X-rated films would be suitable viewing for his eight-year-old daughter.

He knew what he was doing. Dracula in particular struck a chord with me which has resonated ever since. Within a year, I had bought and devoured the novel. Within two, I had moved outwards into the wider world of vampire fiction. Within three I had bought my personal horror bible, and was busy working my way through its Vampire chapter with a particular focus on Hammer's other Dracula movies. I have carried on in much the same vein ever since - and it was absolutely definitively Lee's performance as Dracula which started it all.


If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't have spent my teens steeping myself in Gothic fiction and horror movies. As a result, I would probably never have felt inclined to drift into the Gothic sub-culture in my Bristol days, or have made all the friends I did then and later as a result. I could never have watched The Wicker Man when I got to Oxford, might never have felt the same resonances in the city's May Day celebrations, and would never have had the Wicker Man holiday which [ profile] thanatos_kalos and I enjoyed two years ago in Scotland. Indeed, I would never have watched any of the awesome movies on this list - or any of the rubbishy second-rate ones, either, which I have hunted down and sat through (often accompanied by the ever-patient [ profile] ms_siobhan) just because he was in them. Nor would I recently have bothered reading all about the real life Vlad III Dracula. My parents going to Romania in 1987 would have meant nothing particular to me, and nor would I have joined the Dracula Society and gone on the holiday there with them which I have just got back from.

While we were in Romania, Christopher Lee had his 93rd, and sadly we now know his last, birthday. We happened to be in Sighișoara, where the real life Vlad III Dracula was (probably) born, so I marked the day by nipping out of our hotel early in the morning, crossing the town square and tweeting this selfie from outside the house where he grew up.

Little did I know that the man who had sparked off my interest in Dracula in the first place was already in hospital. Little did I know how few days he had left.

I won't try to claim that I have always considered Christopher Lee to be the perfect human being. I've said plenty of uncomplimentary things about him in the past on this journal. There's no need to repeat them today. But he brought such wonderful stories so powerfully to life - not indeed just by acting in them with such presence and professionalism, but by doing it to such an inspiring degree that already by the mid-1960s people were writing roles and producing stories so that he could inhabit them and bring that magic to them. There is no question that the whole world of fantastic drama and fiction has been immeasurably stronger for his contribution to it. So I am truly, truly grateful for the wondrous worlds those prodigious acting talents have transported me to, and for the real-world doors and pathways they have opened up to me as a result. And though I never met him, and now never will, it felt good to share the same planet with him for the past 38 years. I am very sorry now that that time is over.

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strange_complex: (Corpus Agrimensorum colonia)
Gosh, I found this book disappointing. In theory, it should have been right up my street (whether that be total, alter or cross-hatched). It is speculative fiction about cities, majoring especially in boundaries. Man, I'm so into that shit that I've just finished the peer-review edits to one paper on urban boundaries, am starting to research another, and will be going on a walk about it on Monday. And I could swear friends have been waxing lyrical about this particular book on the periphery of my attention-sphere pretty much ever since it came out. Except that maybe I didn't listen properly to what they were saying. Because while I entirely recognise that its world-building is superb, and its plot is certainly perfectly competent, the fact is that it offers almost no characterisation or indeed human emotional colour whatsoever. And that doesn't half make for dull fiction.

Actually, I found even the world-building a little bit disappointing, because although it is certainly an outstanding example of what it is trying to do, that wasn't quite what I expected, or what tends to appeal to my tastes. Knowing in advance that the book dealt with two cities which physically occupy the same space, but whose residents are unable to see one another, I expected the relationship between the two to be supernatural - as for example between London Above and London Below in Neverwhere, the muggle and magical worlds in Harry Potter, or the parallel worlds in His Dark Materials. In fact, though, the division is legal and social )

In all fairness, that is a brilliant concept, and Miéville builds it up beautifully from the first chapter onwards, dropping little hints of crumbs at how the city works into the narrative of his viewpoint character (a Besź police inspector) at just the right pace to intrigue without becoming tedious, and while also ensuring that his readers are entirely au fait with it all by the time it becomes crucial to the plot. But a) it isn't the magic I picked the book up hoping for (not at all Miéville's fault) and b) unfortunately the drab emotionless characters give us all too little sense of what a division like that would really mean to the people living it out every day (very definitely Miéville's fault).

The main viewpoint character I mentioned a moment ago, Inspector Tyador Borlú, came across to me as an avatar with no internal life. Some authors would have written deep inner conflicts into his psyche to mirror the divisions of the city which he inhabits, and explored them in depth, but as it was his entire function seemed to be to work his way through the plot like the sprite in a puzzle-based computer game. He learns some new things as the story goes along, of course, but does he experience any kind of emotional arc, or change in any fundamental way as a result? I don't think so. Since he ends the story doing spoilery things ), it is just possible that Miéville wrote him that way from the start to set him up as well-suited to that lifestyle. But if that's the case, then almost any of the characters Borlú interacts with could equally well do the same spoilery things ), because none of them seemed any more alive than him.

So, in short, I'm unlikely to read any more of Miéville's novels. But at least I've found that out now, and can thus target my meagre reading activities towards more satisfying objects in future.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
I read this would-otherwise-be-forgotten 1960s novel for the same reason that everyone who reads it now does so - because of its relationship to the film, The Wicker Man (1973). The logistics of this relationship are set out in chapter 3 of Allan Brown (2000), Inside The Wicker Man, but for those who don't happen to have a copy to hand they go roughly as follows. In 1971, Christopher Lee, Peter Snell and Anthony Shaffer bought the rights to Ritual for a collective total of £15,000, with the intention of turning it into a film, but when Shaffer started work on the process in earnest, he realised that a direct adaptation wasn't really going to work as a drama, and gave the other two their money back. Instead, he began researching and writing his own story, and got Robin Hardy involved in developing it and turning it into a film in early 1972. Shaffer always adamantly denied that the resulting script for The Wicker Man had anything to do with Ritual, but Pinner has remained distinctly disgruntled about what he sees as extensive unacknowledged borrowing.

The truth is that although The Wicker Man is clearly a different story from Ritual, the thematic concerns of the two, their overall structures and many of their motifs remain very, very similar indeed )

So, yeah, Shaffer was pretty much lying to himself if he really thought there was no connection at all. There self-evidently is. But as I've said above, they are quite different stories )

A novel full of unlikeable people coming into conflict with other unlikeable people doesn't have to be a bad one, of course. It could be hard-hitting, tense and powerful. But it could also be free of mannered, trying-too-hard writing like this:
Although the final blood of sunset is two hours in the future, already the sky is a glass of honey. A fringe of cloud haunts the skyline of the sea. And the sea is searching out the secrets of the shells on the wet beaches. Seaweed, the clutch of the crab, and the starfish wait for the next wave. With foaming claws, wave crashes on wave. Hear the shingle sing as the wave sucks and plucks, in his salt armour, plucks and sucks the shingles back. The green gauntlets are greedy for stones. They thrust starfish and seaweed home into the starving sea. This happens minute by minute from now until the end.
So much of that, at every available opportunity.

This isn't to say I hated the novel in and of itself. It was fine, I guess. OK. But The Wicker Man is well-paced, well-photographed, conceptually-strong and blessed with irresistibly-quotable dialogue, while Ritual just isn't the textual equivalent of any of those things. In my view, what happened in the early '70s was that Anthony Shaffer took Ritual and made it better. Much better. The result now is that although Ritual is very much worth reading if you are a Wicker Man fan, so that you can see the seeds from which the film grew, otherwise it isn't. Thankfully, if you are a Wicker fan, reading Ritual for yourself is now easy, because it has been reissued in a lovely paperback edition quite openly designed to capitalise on its connection with the cult film. I am only grateful to the bookshop at the end of the British Library's Terror and Wonder exhibition for getting in a lovely big pile of copies, and thus bringing the opportunity to my attention.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Given my current obsession with Dracula and the fact that I am a historian, it's pretty obvious that sooner or later I would want to read up on the historical man behind the myth. I also wasn't going to be satisfied with one of the many popular works on the topic. I wanted Proper History. In fact, what I really set out in search of was an English-language translation of the primary sources. Some of these are available online, such as one of the German-language pamphlets about him printed in Nuremburg in 1488 here. But those are very obviously highly sensationalistic, to a degree which makes the Historia Augusta's Life of Elagabalus look moderate and objective. Meanwhile, I could see that better material must be out there, such as the official document which this image of his signature was taken from. And I wanted to read it!

So I did my research, and very quickly this book stood out from amongst a large and rather motley field. Online reviews and tables of contents confirmed that it includes some 50 pages of translated primary source material (about 1/5 of the book), including official documents and letters from and about Wallachia, Ottoman Chronicles, a Byzantine historiographer, one of the German pamphlets and a Hungarian court historian. This isn't an absolutely comprehensive collection. The official documents and letters are 'selected'; Treptow for some reason omits the Russian pamphlets also published about Dracula (which are as sensationalist as the German ones, but to different effect); and he also cites at certain points, but doesn't present in full, the observations of Pietro Tommasi, the Venetian ambassador to Buda. But I could see in advance, and can confirm now, that it is very definitely the fullest available English-language source collection for Dracula currently on the market.

That would have been enough to make me want to buy it, but meanwhile, my investigations had also made it clear that the other 4/5 of the book were the thing I wanted next most after the primary sources - a proper scholarly analysis of the historical Dracula. This Amazon review from a history professor planning to use it in their teaching sounded particularly promising, while I also found a syllabus for a college course at Rutgers in which it plays a central role (and which I think is taught by someone different from the Amazon reviewer), and a Masters thesis published online which cites it extensively and admiringly.

All eminently promising, you would think. Surely no reason to hesitate about buying a copy? Except that there was, and is, because the author is a convicted paedophile )

Thankfully, once I had accepted the stain on my soul by buying it, the book did at least turn out to be everything I was hoping it would be as a work of history. The first few chapters, which provided background information about Wallachia and its politics in the period when Dracula came to power, were relatively unexciting, as they were primarily synthesis, but then Treptow turned in earnest to the reign of Dracula himself, and I found myself reading a chapter which began like this:
Communist historiography created the image of Dracula as a class hero who struggled to curb the abuses of the evil boyars. This thesis has been repeated so often that it is usually taken for granted, without realizing the political motives that inspired it. Precisely for this reason the relationship between Vlad III and his boyars must be reconsidered. [p. 73]
"Aha!" I thought, virtually rubbing my hands with glee, "now we are about to get some proper history!" And we did )

That's not to say I think this is the most perfect book about Vlad III Dracula that could ever be written, and it certainly doesn't attempt to be the most comprehensive. Biases and omissions )

So there is definitely more for me to read and discover about the historical Dracula than this book alone could tell me, but that's fine – that's how history is, and I'm glad I still have more to find out (and access to a University library to help me with it). Nonetheless, I think I was right in choosing it as my starting-point, because the historical analysis in the first 4/5 of the book was lucid, well-supported and above all transparent, while of course the translations of the primary sources in the final 1/5 now mean that I am very nearly as well-versed in the actual evidence for Dracula's reign as any expert in the field. Like most ancient rulers, his big attraction here is that the available evidence is so limited that reading it all doesn't take very long – and as I say repeatedly to my students, this means that you quickly can get on to the business of analysing and debating it, which is the really fun bit of history.

Of the sources themselves, the documentary sources (deeds, letters, decrees) are clearly the most useful for learning about the actual activities of Dracula as a ruler. Indeed, many of them are written (or dictated, or merely signed off) directly by him in the first person, which is the very best primary evidence you can ask for from any historical ruler. But I must say my favourite to read were the Ottoman sources )

After reading the collection as a whole, I also now feel much clearer than I did before on the whole issue of impalement )

I have certainly learnt a lot about late medieval eastern Europe from this book, which has in turn helped me think about various aspect of ancient politics and warfare by comparison and contrast. Reading about almost any monarch whose power essentially rested on military strength also helps me to understand Augustus better in the same sorts of ways, while one whose source-issues and reception history bear such close resemblances to Augustus' is particularly helpful. But of course I didn't just come here for a real-world history lesson, but also to flesh out the back-story for my favourite fictional vampire. I'm well aware that Bram Stoker knew pretty little about the historical Dracula, and was a bit confused about what he did know. But what if, in spite of that, you want to play the game of splicing together the two?

The truth is, it's difficult to do plausibly. The biggest problem is that the historical Dracula had at least two children between losing his throne in 1462 and regaining it in 1475, and then died in warfare only months after the latter event. If you assume both a) that vampires can't have children, and b) that his motivation for becoming a vampire would have been to achieve political success, then you end up stuck in a blind alley, because he can't have become a vampire until after he had finished having children, and by that point in his life his political successes were qualified at best. It also doesn't help that, like most Wallachian monarchs, he went round founding or granting bequests to churches and monasteries, and writing letters full of phrases like "by the grace of God", "we swear before God", "with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ", etc. - all of which would surely burn in the mouth of any vampire Dracula.

Then again, there are occasional phrases in the primary sources which leap out at anyone looking for a spot of vampirism. Like in Dan III's letter to the people of Brașov and Țara Bârsei, where he says that Dracula has broken faith with the Hungarians "following the teaching of the Devil", or the various references in the Ottoman sources to him flying through the battle-field "like a black cloud", or the story from a poem written shortly after his imprisonment (annoyingly omitted from this book) about him dipping bread in people's blood and eating it. There is also the fact that one of his most famous military attacks took place at night. All of this is of course either perfectly easily-explicable in ordinary human terms, or probably made up – but if you want to, it does provide just about enough fodder to build up a story in which he dabbles with vampirism and / or is assisted by a vampire for some years, but doesn't actually become one himself until at or shortly before the moment of his (historically ill-documented) human death. That is good enough for me.

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strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
I didn't so much read this book as listen to an abridged audio version of it, read by Cushing himself, while driving along in my car. But still, it is a book which I have experienced, so I will review it anyway. That is, insofar as an autobiography really can be 'reviewed'.

In fact, this is Cushing's second autobiography, following on from a earlier volume called Peter Cushing: An Autobiography published in 1986 (which I haven't read, or listened to). But, as he explains in this one, apparently fans were disappointed that the first one focused so much on his personal life, rather than on the film career for which he is famous, so he wrote another volume to satisfy the demand.

That said, it is still a very personal book. It begins with his utter devastation following the death of his beloved wife, Helen, in 1971, and more or less ends with his own experiences of being diagnosed with, and surviving, prostate cancer in the early 1980s. There is also a lot about life in his home town of Whitstable, and his hobby of collecting and painting military miniatures.

But he does talk about his film and television career as well, while making no bones about what unglamorous hard work it really is. I particularly enjoyed a section in which he enumerated the many and varied ways in which he had been killed on screen - while also being well aware that if Christopher Lee attempted a similar listing, you could go off for a three-course meal and night on the town, come back, and he would still be only about half-way through it. And yes, of course, he talks about their collaborations and their friendship, in the very warm and grateful tones that both of them have always used when speaking about each other.

Though I'm sure the printed book contains more material, I think listening to Cushing reading out his life history in his own voice adds a great deal to the experience. He is kind, gentle, polite and utterly un-self-pitying throughout, as anyone who has ever seen or read his behind-the-scenes interviews will expect, even when talking about experiences which were clearly utterly devastating for him at the time. I would defy anyone to listen to it and not feel immense fondness for him, no to mention considerable sorrow that he is no longer with us. Certainly, he makes for an excellent travelling companion up and down the M1.

Very many thanks indeed to the lovely [ profile] ms_siobhan for *ahem* enabling me to listen to this! ;-)

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Mirabile dictu, I am now on top of BOTH film reviews AND Doctor Who reviews, so at last I am able to move on to book reviewing. I have three unreviewed books in the queue, two of which I aspire to knock off today.

Like The Historian, this book came my way courtesy of the Notorious Dracula-Enabler of Old Meanwood Town, and I moved straight onto it after finishing the former. It is a very different book, though. Where The Historian was all about the atmosphere, this one is all about the action. There are dramatic carriage-chases, deadly duels, monsters on the Underground, encounters in dark alleyways, campaigns of vengeance stretching over generations - all the makings of a Gothic romp, really. But the prose is pretty ordinary; functional, rather than beautiful. And the authors' claims about what the novel is doing make it difficult not to scoff.

The background is that the Stoker family missed out on a lot of the potential revenue generated by the original novel, because some kind of minor technical mistake was made when filing for copyright for it in the USA. This came to light during negotiations with the Universal film studio in the 1930s, and once it had been revealed, it meant that the family lost all rights over any adaptation of the story. Meanwhile, a screenwriter and horror geek called Ian Holt had long been looking for the opportunity to write a Dracula sequel. Through various networks of Dracula enthusiasts, he eventually managed to meet Dacre Stoker, Bram's great-grandnephew, and they agreed to collaborate on this novel. So Ian Holt could benefit from the profile and marketing opportunities afforded by the Stoker name, while Dacre Stoker could re-establish a Stoker family stake in the Dracula character.

All of this is explained in an Afterword at the end of the book, in which both authors tell their 'story'. Unfortunately, though, between this Afterword and the novel itself it is patently obvious that a) Dacre Stoker is no writer (he literally says "Ian reassured me that, even though I had never written a novel before, I could do it"), and b) that Ian Holt is in truth much more of a film geek than a Bram Stoker aficionado. So we end up with this novel, which presents itself as The One True Sequel to Stoker's novel, but actually throws a lot of Stoker's canon out of the window, preferring the filmic traditions instead. Examples include:
  • Sunlight is fatal to vampires - famously invented for the innovative special-effects climax of Nosferatu (1922)
  • Carfax Abbey is in Whitby and next to John Seward's Asylum - invented for the stage-play to slim down the number of different locations, but popularised by Universal's Dracula (1931)
  • Renfield is a former partner of Peter Hawkins, Jonathan Harker's employer - Universal again
  • Lucy, who of course occurs only in flash-backs in this novel, having met a sticky end in the first one, is repeatedly described as having red hair - sounds like Francis Ford Coppola to me.
The in-story explanation for all this is that Stoker wrote his novel after a stranger (later, of course, revealed to be Dracula) related the basic events of it to him in the pub, but that those events were not related accurately in the first place, while Stoker also adjusted and embroidered them as he wrote them up. So this novel incorporates both Stoker's novel and Stoker himself, who appears as a character, but can also either keep or discard any of the details of Stoker's novel which it fancies, by simply declaring that those details either were or weren't 'true' narrations of the facts. Thus the surviving characters from Stoker's novel - John Seward, Mina and Jonathan Harker, their son Quincey, Arthur Holmwood and Van Helsing - all exist within this novel, and indeed young Quincey Harker finds out about Stoker's work and confronts him angrily about its resemblance to his family's real experiences. But those aren't actually quite the same as the events experienced by characters with the same names in Stoker's novel.

In some respects, this is fine, because it allows room for the exploration of the experiences and perspectives of Stoker's characters not covered in the original novel. But talking about those gets spoilery ) But the purely mechanical changes which favour film-canon over book-canon felt off to me in a book explicitly positioning itself as a sequel to Stoker's novel. This is what the Afterword has this to say about the issue:
"Our dearest wish is all Dracula fans - of the book and of the films - will read and enjoy our sequel. To this end there are several areas which we felt that film fans had so embraced and had become so engrained into Dracula legend that we could not overlook them. To the literary purists we apologize, but we feel this is a necessary concession, made in the hope of once and for all harmonizing Dracula fans."
Is it just me that finds their self-appointment as the 'harmonizing' healers of Dracula fandom breath-takingly arrogant? And naive, for that matter. But that aside, I don't think it is necessary to do things like move Carfax from London to Whitby so that people who know the story of Dracula primarily from its film adaptations can enjoy this story. Besides, the experience of reading it is one of encountering less a deliberate and clever merging of myths, and more a distinct impression that its authors couldn't actually be bothered to read the novel properly. Basically, it feels like this is the Dracula screenplay which Ian Holt always wanted to write, and probably had written well before he met Dacre Stoker, awkwardly and not entirely successfully re-configured to fit the opportunities offered by the collaboration.

That probably sounds hugely snobbish, but there you are. People get annoyed if what they find when they open the covers of a book doesn't match what is promised on the front. In fact, you can end up cancelling out the goodwill you would have achieved by being more honest about what you are doing that way. Because it's not actually as if this book is dreadful in and of itself. Like I said, the new angles on Stoker's characters which build on what he wrote, rather than contradicting it, are fun. And there are some quite good inter-texts which again don't contradict Stoker, but enrich the story by evoking the wider tradition around his text, and thus in turn drawing meta-referential attention to its status as a work of fiction. Those get spoilery, too! )

Basically, then, this is a cracky mash-up of Stoker's novel, its many filmic adaptations (though especially the American ones), a load of other Gothic tales, and some historical people and events, all wrapped up into a ripping adventure yarn with a surprisingly brutal ending. As such, it's a pretty good read. But the definitive sequel to Stoker's Dracula it is not.

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strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Very neatly, [ profile] wig tagged me for this meme on LJ, and TAFKAK tagged me for it on Facebook on the same day last week. So I shall answer it in both places, but obviously LJ lends itself better to nice formatting and having space to make some actual comments about the books. I have taken the concept of the books 'staying with me' seriously, and thus listed ones which both meant a lot to me at the time of original discovery and to which I have returned regularly since. They are listed (as best as I could remember) in the order in which I first encountered them.

L. Frank Baum (1900), The Wizard of Oz
This stands for the whole series, of course. I was certainly quite obsessed with them by the age of six, and indeed a picture of me reading one of them to my friends on that birthday can be seen here. The 1939 film was important too, of course, and I'm pretty sure I had seen it by that age, but there were more of the books, with far more wonderful characters and adventures than the film could deliver. Dad used to read the books to me as bedtime stories, I used to read and re-read them myself, and of course there was a great deal of dressing up, playing at being characters from the books and so on with the very friends shown in the picture, and especially [ profile] hollyione. A lifetime love of fantastical stories was to follow...

Alison Uttley (1939), A Traveller in Time
Did loads of other people read this as children? I don't hear it mentioned very often as a children's classic, but it was another big favourite of my childhood, and has literally stayed with me in the sense that I still have my copy of it. I haven't done that for many of my childhood books - though the Oz series are another exception. Doubtless one of the attractions all along was the fact that the main character, a young girl from the 20th century, is called Penelope. But also, time travel! While staying in a Tudor manor house, she repeatedly finds herself slipping back to its early days, and interacting with characters from the reign of Elizabeth I. Clearly at the roots of my love of both fantastical time travel stories, and the real-life dialogue between present and past.

Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula
Ha, I hardly need to explain this one right now, do I? See my dracula tag, passim, for details. First read, as far as I can tell, in early 1986, when I was nine years old, on the back of having seen the Hammer film the previous autumn. Left me with a love of all things Gothic, which has waxed and waned but never really left me ever since. As the wise [ profile] inbetween_girl once said, you never really stop being a Goth. At best, you're in recovery. Or perhaps lapsed, would be another way of putting it.

Diana Wynne Jones (1977), Charmed Life
Initially read via a copy from the school library aged 9 or 10, this came back and 'haunted' me with memories of a book of matches, a castle and a strange magical man in my early 20s. By then, the internet was advanced enough to have forums where I could ask what the title of the book I was remembering might be, and to deliver an answer within a few hours. So I bought a copy, swiftly followed by copies of the other Chrestomanci books, and then copies of multiple other DWJ books (see my diana wynne jones tag for details). As an adult, I can see that the real appeal of DWJ's writing lies in the combination of her light yet original prose style, imaginative vision and sharp understanding of human interactions, but as a child I'm pretty sure it was all about the unrecognised magical powers and multiple interconnected magical worlds. As per the Oz books, I really love that stuff.

Gene Wright (1986), Horrorshows: the A-Z of Horror in Film, TV, Radio and Theatre
In 2010, Mark Gatiss presented a documentary series called A History of Horror, during which he held up a book about horror films which he had owned since childhood, and explained how it was his personal Horror Bible, which had opened up to him the wonderful world of the genre. From the reaction on Twitter, it instantly became clear that everyone who had grown up loving horror films before the emergence of the internet had also owned such a book, and this is mine. I bought it at a book fair in about 1987 or 1988, devoured it greedily, and have been faithfully ticking off every film in it which I have seen ever since. Of course, the internet has long rendered such books obsolete, and insofar as this one was ever comprehensive at the time of original purchase, it certainly isn't now. So it is utterly meaningless to tick off all the films in it, as though somehow the end goal is to tick off every single film in the book - at which time, I don't know, a fanfare will sound and a man in a rhinestone suit will pop out to tell me I've won a prize, or something? But I still add a tick each time I see a new film from within its pages anyway, because heck I have been doing so for 25 years, and I'm not going to stop now. Besides, it's not like I care about horror films made after 1986 anyway (I struggle to care about those made after 1976, TBH), so it doesn't matter to me that it is enormously out of date.

Douglas Adams (1979), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
First read c. age 11, and read at least another 8 times since. I know this because I have kept a tally of how many times I read it in the front of the book - classic geekish behaviour, of course. Once again, it's basically all about travel to wondrous other worlds, but this time instead of being magical (Oz, Chrestomanci), historical (A Traveller in Time), or supernatural (Dracula, everything else in Horrorshows), they are in space! It's not actually like I discovered adventures in space for the first time from Hitchhiker's, because of course I was also watching Doctor Who on a regular basis in parallel with all of this reading material, with which of course Hitchhiker's is intimately linked. But yeah - given everything else which has already appeared on this list, it is no big surprise that I loved Hitchhiker's.

C. Suetonius Tranquillus (c. AD 120), The Twelve Caesars
And now my list radically changes tack, because having established that I love stories about the fantastical, the rest of it is made up of books which mark key stages in the emergence of my academic interest in the ancient world. I am not, of course, unaware that this in itself also basically boils down to yet another interest in a wondrous other world, albeit one which actually existed in this case. Really, the mode of engagement is very similar - we have little snippets of information about the Roman world (texts, objects, places), just as we have little snippets of information about fictional fantasy worlds (texts, screen portrayals, merchandise), but there is also so much we don't know, and are at liberty to extrapolate from what we do. Plus the similar-yet-different qualities and the opportunity to compare and contrast can let us think about our own world in ways that just don't open up if we only think about it directly. And so I found a way to apply the thought-patterns and approaches I'd been developing from early childhood to something which grown-ups thought was admirable and serious, and which it was possible to acquire prestige and eventually even money through studying. As for Suetonius himself, he is here because he was one of the earliest ancient authors I really came to feel familiar with and fond of, mainly during A-level Ancient History. Tacitus may well be clever and sharp, but there is always a judgemental, sanctimonious undertone with him that I don't very much like. The things which interest Suetonius, by contrast, make him seem so utterly human - but there are also all sorts of clever structures and allusions to discover in his text on close reading, which together make him incredibly rewarding. I once literally hugged my Penguin copy of Suetonius to my chest as a sort of talisman when feeling alone, upset and in need of comfort. I can't really imagine anyone doing that with Tacitus.

J.B. Ward-Perkins (1991), Roman Imperial Architecture
One of the first books I bought about ancient material culture (as opposed to texts), in the context of a module on Roman architecture which I did in (I think) my second year as an undergraduate at Bristol. While strictly about buildings rather than cities, it nonetheless includes a lot of material about how those buildings fitted into the urban landscapes where they were located - unsurprisingly, since Ward-Perkins himself was really interested in cities first and architecture second, and wrote one of the earliest English-language books on the subject. So it is to this book which my interest in Roman urbanism can really be traced, and I still turn to it occasionally when I need to get to grips with a new (to me) city.

Christopher Hibbert (1987), Rome: the biography of a city
This one is from my third year at Bristol, and the best undergraduate module I ever did - Responses to Rome with Catharine Edwards and Duncan Kennedy, which was all about post-Classical responses to ancient Rome from the medieval period to the present day. I sat in those classes falling in love with Rome, and then went home to pore through this book and the wonders within. I still return to it in order to refresh my memory of medieval myths about the city's ancient past, Grand Tourism or fascist appropriations, all of which I have needed to do in the past few years.

Greg Woolf (1998), Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilization in Gaul
And finally, the book which I consulted most frequently while writing my PhD thesis. It had utterly redefined thinking about the relationship between Rome the state and its provincial populations, killing off tired old paradigms of 'beneficial imperialism' (think: What have the Romans ever done for us?) for good, so would have been important no matter what province I had used to look at the relationship between Roman ideas about the urban periphery and the reality on the ground in a provincial setting. But since I had chosen Gaul as my own main case-study anyway, it was gold-dust. Fifteen years later, it remains at the forefront of scholarly thinking on the topic, and thus still features regularly on my module reading lists, amongst my recommendations to research students, and indeed in the bibliographies of my own published works.

I'm not tagging anyone, because pretty much everyone in the world has done this meme already by now - but feel free to take this post as a prompt to do it yourself if you haven't and want to.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Back in November, I pondered the question of why Dracula invites Jonathan Harker to his castle in the 1958 Hammer film, and concluded that it was because he is a bookish sort who genuinely wants his library put in order (i.e. Dracula does not simply lure Jonathan there with the intention of killing him). In comments on that post, both [ profile] matgb and [ profile] ms_siobhan drew my attention to the existence of The Historian, in which a rather different Dracula likewise lures a series of librarians and / or historians into his clutches for the same purpose. Not long afterwards, [ profile] ms_siobhan, Dracula-enabler that she is, found me a copy in a local charity shop, and I got stuck in.

Between them, [ profile] matgb and [ profile] ms_siobhan used words like 'dull', 'dry' and 'ponderous' to describe it, but while it is certainly slow-moving, and has various other flaws which I shall cover below, on the whole I absolutely loved it. Though set in the 20th century, it is basically about modern characters slowly working out that the historical Vlad III Draculea not only survived his own death and became a vampire, but is also an active threat to them in the present day. I am increasingly finding the historical Dracula almost as fascinating as the Hammer Dracula - and Hammer do, thankfully, provide just enough of a thread to link the two together in the first film, via Van Helsing's single line, "Records show that Count Dracula could be five or six hundred years old."1 So naturally the story of how the one became the other then becomes of great interest, and this book seemed to me a very compelling and impressively historically-grounded take on that story. (Another rather more fantastical and action-oriented take on the story hits cinemas in October.)

That's not to say it's perfect. It takes a long time to get going, and a lot of the early material in particular is basically gratuitous scenery porn )

A few other things could have been tightened up a bit, too )

Anyway, I have criticised a lot, but that's because this book was so close to being really incredible that its flaws are frustrating. So let's move on to some of the things I liked about it.

One was the meta-fiction )

Another thing I liked were the inter-texts )

And then there is the portrayal of Dracula himself - a topic which becomes rather spoilery )

Oh well, he was good while he lasted. And meanwhile some interesting ideas are left tantalisingly-unresolved for ongoing musing. In particular, the precise nature of the relationship between the daughter who is the main narrator and Dracula, which also can't be discussed without spoilers )

1. Obviously, so does Stoker in his novel, which is nice, but the Hammer films are the primary canon to me, even though I'm well aware that that is rather unfair, given that Stoker created Dracula-the-vampire in the first place. I guess as a Classicist I am just comfortable with the idea that the first version of a story doesn't necessarily need to be viewed as the definitive one, and while Stoker's novel is certainly extremely good, I just prefer the Hammer films for all sorts of reasons - and saw them before I read the novel anyway, so that they did come first for me.

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
This is a BBC Eleventh Doctor plus Amy and Rory spin-off novel, which I read mainly because it was written by LJ's very own [ profile] altariel. She has another one out now, but this was her first, and I remember her being pleased as punch when it came out. I've been meaning to read it ever since.

I have read a few of the Virgin New Adventures or Missing Adventures novels in the past (e.g. Lungbarrow, The Well-Mannered War and Human Nature), but this is my first experience of a BBC-branded Doctor Who novel (i.e. one starring the current Doctor and marketed as spin-off merchandising), so I don't have much comparable material to judge it against. But I certainly really enjoyed this book in its own right - which is lucky, really, as it would be a bit embarrassing having to write this review otherwise!

What I liked about it most was the meta-references to story-telling which are woven throughout the narrative - something which always presses my buttons, but I think was done especially well here. The book opens with an evocative snippet of the scary rumours which circulate around (what will turn out to be) the book's main setting, the city of Geath, using the opportunity not only to foreshadow some of the excitement and peril which will come later, but also to establish some important themes - particularly unreliable narration and the way that oral stories become embroidered in the telling, but also the way that they have the strongest power in the half-glimpsed semi-darkness and over people who are on their own.

Later on, as the story unfolds and the characters are getting to know Geath, we also meet a Teller whose stories have an inexplicable and politically revolutionary power over his listeners, and find the Doctor rigging up the alien equivalent of Renaissance technology to project cinematic images of ancient wars, and to beam TV-style communications into homes and public squares all across Geath. I very much liked the way all these different media - oral stories, films, TV - appeared together in a narrative all about the power of story-telling, and one which inherently bridges two different story-telling media in itself by virtue of being a novel about characters from a TV series. It meant that the central theme really was the power of stories writ large, rather than the power of stories told in one particular medium, which in this case I am able to add chimes strongly with what I know of Una as a person.

In much the same vein, I was also pleased but not surprised at the treatment of gender in the novel. Again, I know this is something Una feels strongly about in other people's stories, and it was great to see her getting the opportunity to Do It Right in her own novel. It's not just that as many of the major characters in the novel are female as male, or that the female characters have a strong sense of agency while also steering well clear of being tropish Strong Women without any meaningful flaws or dilemmas. What really told me I was reading a novel by someone who had thought about gender equality while writing it was the way that minor characters who were little more than the equivalent of extras in screen productions, and who so often simply default to being male in novels or on screen, turned out to be female. The example which particularly struck me was a knight who got killed when her horse bolted after being frightened by a hostile alien influence. It wasn't a speaking part, and of course the word 'knight' particularly invites a male-as-default reaction, but this particular character was quietly female. A nice touch, both in terms of portraying gender equality and prodding the reader to question their own assumptions.

I will admit that my attention wandered a while during the middle part of the novel, once the major characters had been established and there was rather a lot of impending war and capture-and-escape business to get through before everything could be resolved. But I get that that stuff is pretty much par for the course in this sort of fiction. Meanwhile, there was a lot more to enjoy than the two major points which I have outlined above - like the pre-industrial city-state setting, the central device of a gold-like substance called Enamour which has a hypnotic influence on those who come into contact with it, the strategies for dealing with a substance like this which are worked through in the story, some explorations of the disjunction between bureaucratic adherence to set rules and actual justice, and the fact that in the end the centuries-old alien conflict which constitutes the main drama of the story is resolved through discussion and negotiation, rather than fighting. I also thought the characterisation of the Doctor, Amy and Rory was very good, which is quite impressive given that I know from Una's LJ posts that she had to be given notes about what they would be like while writing the novel, as they hadn't actually appeared on TV yet at the time.

One slight 'Buh?' moment came from what appeared to be an extremely slashy scene between the Teller and the king whom he served, Beol, containing lines like "He rested his strong hands upon the other man's shoulders and smiled down at him", immediately before the revelation that they were, in fact, brothers. Come on, Una, spill the beans - was this originally straightforward slash which you were asked to tone down into brotherly love by a conservative editor?

Anyway, I don't know if I'm likely to read more Doctor Who spin-off stories for their own sake, but I'm definitely open to more by this author. ;-)

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strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
I've always meant to read this. I've read, listened to or watched everything else Douglas Adams ever produced after all, and this was the last remaining item of his which I hadn't experienced. Except that obviously, it isn't actually by him, so the urge was never quite strong enough to make me actually hunt it down. But then when I saw it for £1 on a book-stall at the excellent Swords, Sorcery, Sandals and Space conference in the summer, it seemed silly to pass it up.

I'm not going to be terribly complimentary about it, unfortunately, and for that reason if nothing else it's probably best to say a bit about its authorship before I start criticising. Basically, it is the novelisation of a computer game, Starship Titanic, which Douglas Adams produced in the late '90s. Adams originally intended to write the novel as well as the game himself, but as deadlines loomed and he decided that his primary interest was the game, he passed the work of producing the novel on to Terry Jones. So Jones was working with a basic scenario set out by Adams, and presumably some briefing notes about the characters and what ought to happen to them - but the details were down to him. I've never played the game, because I didn't have a computer capable of running it when it came out, so I can't judge how close the relationship between the game and the novel is, and therefore which aspects of the novel might have come primarily from Adams, and which from Jones. So I'll mainly just refer to the author as Adams / Jones, except when I'm explicitly commenting on which of them might have contributed particular ideas.

I thought the book was going to be crashingly sexist for the first 60 pages or so. These are set on Blerontin, the planet from which the Starship Titanic is launched, so the setting is utterly alien, and Adams / Jones could have imagined it any way they wanted. As it happens, the Blerontinians are essentially humanoid (except that they have orange eyes), which is fine and still doesn't make it necessary to import all of humanity's failings into the novel. And yet, nonetheless, their society is gendered in exactly the same way as ours, and while all the people with status and agency (the Blerontinian equivalent of a President, a Journalist, the ship's designer) are male, women appear only on p. 21, where we meet "a young cub reporter with a cleavage" who is there solely to act as an object for the ship-designer's lust, and on p. 29, where we learn that part of the reason why the Starship Titanic is in fact a floating disaster rather than a great triumph is that it was built by the Amalgamated Unmarried Teenage Mothers' Construction Units. By which time I was gasping in horror and wondering whether this could be any worse if Adams / Jones had deliberately set out to parody the sexism embedded in SF by writing an over-the-top exaggerated version of it.

Thankfully, on page 62, the setting shifts to Earth, and we meet four humans, two of whom are women, and the beyond-parody sexism drops away with the introduction of the more veristic characters. There is still some weirdness, though, like a great deal of comment on how one character called Nettie is incredibly hot and wears midriff-revealing T-shirts and so on, which doesn't do anything at all to advance the plot or her characterisation. In fact, character-wise, Nettie is extremely strong, resourceful and quick-thinking, so maybe all the "and she's really hot too!" stuff is about creating a wish-fulfilment super-babe character? Also, there is a very bizarre love-triangle thing between the other female character, Lucy, the Blerontinian Journalist, and Lucy's previous boyfriend, Dan, which basically involves Lucy and the Journalist suddenly and unexplainedly jumping each others' bones in a way that has no emotional plausibility whatsoever, or (again) any plot relevance either. In all honesty, it just comes across as the writing of someone who doesn't really understand a) women or b) relationships between men and women in any terms other than stereotypes and sniggers. I know Adams was never that good at writing women himself (cf. Trillian), but I feel like this bears more resemblance to Jones' Pythonesque world of women as sexy secretaries or mad housewives. Either way, though, it was weird and annoying.

The actual novel, plot, ideas etc are basically OK for a light read, but nothing particularly exciting or inspiring. There is one reason, though, why a Doctor Who fan in particular might wish to read it, and that is for its distinct resemblance to the Kylie Christmas Special, Voyage of the Damned. It isn't simply that they are both retellings of the real-world Titanic story. In both, the ship's owners are attempting to perpetrate a massive insurance scheme fraud, and have deliberately sent the ship out with the express intention that it should crash. The details aren't quite identical, because in Voyage of the Damned the owner (Max Capricorn) is actually on the ship himself, hidden in a protective chamber, with the aim of surviving the crash and bankrupting his former company in the process, whereas in Starship Titanic it is simply a case of the company owner and his chief accountant realising that the project will ruin them, and deciding to cut construction costs, scuttle the ship and claim the insurance instead. But a lot of the individual elements are the same - obstructive robots, loss of oxygen, a difficult journey though a damaged ship, people falling into a central engine shaft, and the fact that the planet which the ship either nearly or really crashes onto is Earth.

Presumably, this is very much the sort of stuff which also features in the game, and thus comes originally from Douglas Adams. So it's rather nice to know that long after The Pirate Planet, City of Death and Shada, Adams was still shaping Doctor Who stories from beyond the grave (and indeed not for the last time, either). As for the game itself, I would still like to have a go at it one day (if it's even still compatible with today's computers), but have a rather long list of things which are a higher priority than it, and also suspect that I've gathered much of its contents from the book. If anyone has ever played it, do let me know if it's worth tracking down.

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strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
This is the sequel to The Rich Are Different, which I reviewed here and which translates the story of Julius Caesar's dictatorship and death, followed by Octavian's rise to power, to the finance houses of New York in the 1920s and '30s. This second volume takes up a few years after the last left off, and follows events equivalent to those which happened in ancient Rome between 23 and 2 BC - or, in the story, between 1949 and the late 1960s. It is long and complex, running over more than 600 pages and with six sections each narrated by a different point of view character: Sam Keller (Agrippa), Alicia (Livia), Cornelius (Augustus), Sebastian (Tiberius), Scott (Iullus Antonius) and finally Vicky Van Zale (Julia). We learn a great deal about all of them, not to mention many others, and there are multiple sub-plots, emotional crises and personal revelations along the way. I'm not going to try to summarise the whole thing, but will instead concentrate on how it works as a (loose) Augustus novel, and as a reception of Roman history.

I will start, though, by mapping out how the characters in this novel match up to their Roman equivalents )

Cornelius / Augustus: public success and private unhappiness )

Vicky / Julia: finding happiness in a parallel universe )

Howatch's historical and literary canvass )

All in all, then, I was extremely impressed with this novel, just as I was with its predecessor. Its approach to the basic Augustus-story at its heart may be more or less conventional, but only within a pretty small pool of novels or screen portrayals which attempt to do this at all. Meanwhile, the translation to the world of New York banking loosens the tie to its historical foundations just enough to give Howatch room to do some interesting and original things with the source-material, while the wide range of historical and literary allusions develop the story considerably further. In fact, that aspect of the book reminded me sometimes of the way Diana Wynne Jones uses similar material, such as the story of Tam Lin in Fire and Hemlock or Donne's poem about a falling star in Howl's Moving Castle. In short, there is rather more to this novel than the family saga story which most of the internet seems to have it down as, and I am looking forward to putting this review on my real-name blog to help balance out that impression.

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strange_complex: (Christ Church Mercury)
More reviews, and I am finally on to the books which I read in 2012 - yay! I can't honestly recommend this one, though. I bought it on the basis of a review in the Oxford Alumni magazine, which made it sound rather Philip Pullmanesque, all full of vampires and witches and a mysterious magical manuscript. But I'm afraid that, although it certainly does feature vampires and witches and a magical manuscript, it fell well short of my expectations as an actual story.

In fact, I nearly gave up on it altogether part-way through the first chapter, which was basically a massive info-dump about the main character's back-story, told from a first-person perspective as she is going about a day's work in the Bodleian Library. Coming at a point when I had not yet been given any reasons to care about that character, this was neither terribly interesting, nor stylistically pleasing. It felt a lot like I was reading the author's file of notes about her, except awkwardly inserted into the narrative. I persevered, though, on the grounds that I have paid for the book and was damned well going to get my money's worth.

As the story developed, it also became clear that this main character was basically one huge great stonking Mary Sue. The descriptions of her physical appearance closely match the author portrait on the back cover, both author and character are American-born historians working on the history of science (esp. alchemy) who have spent a lot of time in Oxford, and, whaddaya know, the character begins the story believing that she has no magical powers and wanting to live her life as an ordinary person, but turns out to be the most powerful witch of her generation, with an astonishing range of hitherto-unknown abilities, never seen together in a single being within living memory, all emerging in her over the course of the story. She is the only person who has ever been able to retrieve the magical manuscript at the heart of the story from the Bodleian stacks; the mysterious and incredibly handsome vampire character of course falls deeply in love with her at first sight (going completely against what we are told of both his own character and social convention in their world); and she basically turns out to be the unwilling key player in a centuries-old struggle between various types of magical creatures, all of whom are desperate to either kill or or lay down their lives for her. In short, she couldn't be any more of a cliché if the author had deliberately been setting out to parody the entire Mary Sue trope.

There is a lot else in the story which reads like a pastiche, too. The main character's discovery that she not only has magical powers, but particularly choice ones too, is very Harry Potteresque - although to be fair many fantastical stories have used this device, and for that reason I'm prepared to let it pass. It's a trope, but a trope doesn't necessarily mean a bad story. There's a lot more, though. There are a lot of love scenes about the vampire character fighting against his natural desire to chow down on the witch character because he loves her so much, which I believe is these days a mainstay of the Twilight stories. The uneasy co-existence within one story-world of several supernatural species - vampires, witches and (more originally) daemons - is again familiar from Twilight, not to mention True Blood, Being Human, the Buffyverse and a bunch of others. The author's apparent belief that moving the characters from exotic setting to exotic setting (Oxford, a French chateau, New York state) and going on a lot about sensual luxuries (silken sheets, old wines, architecture) will make the story interesting can be traced back to Anne Rice. And Dan Brown has kindly lent the device of a quasi-legendary secret organisation with roots in the period of the Crusades (the Knights of Lazarus) and a malign panel of beings seeking to control the workings of the world without ever revealing themselves in public (the Congregation).

Towards the end, the story also involves a little time travel, since one of the (very many) magical abilities which the main character develops over the course of the narrative is 'time-walking' - that is, the ability to step back into a particular period in the past, aided by a couple of artefacts which have come from the place and time she wants to get to. This perked me up for a moment, because I loves me some time travel, but in practice it was incredibly badly-realised. She and her vampire paramour travel back to his mother's French castle, during a period of several weeks (if not months) earlier in the novel when they had been staying there. But somehow they don't encounter their previous selves while they are there. Instead, their previous selves are mysteriously and conveniently entirely missing from the castle, while the new versions of the two main characters interact perfectly freely with the occupants without anyone ever saying either "Oh, but we thought you'd gone out for the evening?" or "Hold on, weren't you in the library just now?" or anything of the sort. In other words, all the cool fun stuff about time travel just wasn't there at all, so that they might as well not have done it.

Meanwhile, the plot itself unfolds incredibly slowly, with very little happening for long sections of the book. There is a lot of material which could very easily have been edited out, and a general feeling that the real concern of the book throughout was with character-delineation and world-building rather than plot. That would be fine if it was good character-delineation and world-building, but as I've explained above, it wasn't. In the end it didn't come as much of a surprise when I finished the book and discovered that the story was by no means over - rather, it was only really beginning, and there would be a sequel out soon to continue it.

Weirdly, all that said, once I had got past the abysmal first chapter, I found myself rather enjoying reading the rest of the book. I think this was because I had realised that it was so second-rate that there wasn't really much point remembering the fine details of the plot or characterisation in order to see how they would pay off later, or analysing the story motifs in order to spot clever allusions or inter-texts. It just wasn't worth that kind of attention, and this meant that instead it simply became comforting brain-candy at the end of each day. I even kind of got to like the predictable, unchanging behaviour of the main characters. But that's still not enough reason to buy the sequel.

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strange_complex: (Cities condor in flight)
And now that I am finally up to date with film reviews and Doctor Who reviews, I can turn my attention once again to my much-neglected book reviews.

I should have read this one years ago, given that I'm a Classicist who loves stories of a fantastical nature, but it took me until 2011 to finally get round to it. And what a fool I was to wait so long, because it is completely ace! I knew that it involved the narrator going on a voyage to the moon, and for that reason has often been viewed as the first (surviving) SF story - but actually he and his companions travel through a whole series of wondrous settings. These include an island with rivers of wine, a giant whale so huge that there are colonies of people living inside its stomach, an island made of cheese, the Isle of the Blest full of Greek heroes, philosophers and writers, Calypso's island, an island inhabited by people with the heads of bulls, an island full of cannibalistic witches and finally a mysterious new transAtlantic continent which he promises to describe - but never does.

In its own time this was probably conceived as a satire on stories of epic voyages like the Odyssey and the Argonautica, so the settings which the narrator experiences are basically an exaggerated parody of places like the island of the Lotus Eaters, Circe's island, the all-female society of Lemnos, or the land of the six-armed giants in those works. Lucian knits his fantastical settings together using the same epic voyage format, but marks his work out as satire by declaring up-front that the entire story is a bunch of lies. This has kept scholars busy discussing ancient conceptions of the relationship between 'fiction' and 'lies' ever since (to little purpose in my view).

Reading from a modern perspective, I found that the succession of wondrous lands full of strange people reminded me more than anything of the Wizard of Oz series. That may simply be because the very lively and engaging translation which I read was published in 1913, though - i.e. right in the middle of the period when L. Frank Baum was writing the original Oz series (1900-1920). Certainly, almost any modern SF series which involves a core group of travellers visiting a succession of fantastical places could be compared to this, including Star Trek, Doctor Who and The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy (which incorporates the satirical element as well) and no doubt many more. Indeed, just as this work in itself relates closely to the Odyssey, the Argonautica et sim., so too do modern works of SF using the same basic voyage format - as Ray Harryhausen surely knew when he closed the circle by positioning Jason and the Argonauts as an SF film. Genres overlap and inform one another, and everything is intertextual.

From the translation I read at least, I can also say that this was a genuinely good read - funny, inventive, and (precisely because it is so fantastical) not really requiring any particular knowledge of the ancient world to 'get' the jokes. The Isle of the Blest section might drag a bit for non-Classicists, because that includes topical humour about particular heroes and thinkers - e.g. Ajax, Theseus and Menelaus, Alexander and Hannibal, Homer, Aesop, Diogenes the Cynic and so forth. But even there the basis of most of the jokes is pretty clear from the context. Otherwise, I can highly recommend this book to anyone - especially since it is available for free right here, and is only the equivalent of a couple of chapters from a modern novel long.

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strange_complex: (Fred shall we dance)
I saw this film a few weeks ago with [ profile] glitzfrau and [ profile] biascut, when I went to Manchester to give a talk at the JACT AGM. I also read the book four years ago, and and thought it was pretty good.

Much of the media conversation at the time this film came out seemed to run along the lines of "Oh, The Great Gatsby is one of the great unfilmable novels! Has Luhrmann succeeded where others have failed?" etc. But to be honest, I don't actually see what is supposedly so unfilmable about it anyway. The fact that it's written in the first person? The fact that Jay Gatsby's character is revealed piecemeal and that we have to work our way through a lot of distorted images before we get near to the real man? Plenty of other novels present the same problems, and plenty of other film-makers have dealt with them quite adeptly.

This film seemed to capture the feel of the novel perfectly adequately, handling the first-person narrative via a 'book-end' scenario of Nick Carraway relating his experiences to a psychiatrist and a few voice-overs, and the slow revealing of Jay Gatsby via - shock horror! - presenting him at a remove in the early scenes, and having several characters talk about him before he himself enters the narrative. But I never really expected anything other than that this novel would make a good subject for a film. Maybe if I'd seen some of the other film versions which have been made of it, I'd be clearer about the potential problems.

Anyway, going beyond the 'filming the great unfilmable novel' narrative, I certainly enjoyed this film visually. Lavish party scenes are Baz Luhrmann's big thing, and he did them well - although given how much I like 1920s jazz music, I rather wish he'd just used it, rather than being oh-so-terribly-clever by using equivalent modern music instead. The Valley of Ashes looked almost exactly as I had imagined it when I read the book, which was nice, and I particularly enjoyed the rich little vignettes of New York city life which we see through a series of windows as Nick Carraway is looking out from the balcony of the apartment where Tom and Myrtle conduct their secret affair. We saw the film in 2D, which was perfectly good, but I could very much see how a lot of it had been set up to be really pretty mind-blowing when seen in 3D.

The performances were generally good too, including Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby. I'd had my doubts about that beforehand, but to be honest I haven't really seem him in anything much since Titanic (to the extent that I barely recognised him physically as the same man in this film), and he seems to have grown into an actor capable of carrying off this type of role better than I would previously have given him credit for. But somehow the film as a whole came across as competent and solid, rather than memorable and exciting. The only identifiable reason I can give for feeling disappointed with it is the pacing - particularly the fact that Gatsby emerged as a clear and distinct character rather faster than he does in the novel, and hence lost his mystique rather too quickly. That doesn't seem quite enough reason to have come away feeling so meh-ish about it, but it's all I got.

I was looking out for Roman references of course, given the link between the original novel and Petronius' Satyricon - though as I've said before, I didn't find it a very profound link when I read it. In any case, Luhrmann chose not to do very much with this at all, which is obviously a pity from my point of view. I did spot the bust of a Roman empire in Jay Gatsby's house, but it wasn't quite on screen for long enough for me to tell whether it was Augustus or Trajan, making it a little difficult to comment on what it might add to the story (though there are certainly potential resonances between Gatsby and either of those emperors). But other than that, nothing.

What was fun, though, was seeing this film so shortly after having been to New York myself, and especially after spending most of my time there with my nose buried in archives dating from the late 1930s. OK, so that's some 15 years after The Great Gatsby is set, and the other side of the Great Depression, but from where we're sitting now it is not a huge difference. There is one particular character from my archives, an Italian ex-pat calling himself Conte Luigi Criscuolo (heaven knows how legitimate the title was), who had set himself up as a financial adviser on Wall Street and was clearly living a life of considerable luxury in the late 1930s involving an out-of-town house, a private secretary etc. What would really make him fit right into the world of The Great Gatsby, though, was his self-obsession, arrogant flaunting of high social connections and tendency to take great offence at anyone who disagreed with or overlooked him in any way. There are some fantastic letters from him in the archives of the American Numismatic Society and Metropolitan Museum of Art which combine pomposity, affront and pointed politeness in a way that would have seemed entirely at home amongst the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel. It's a pity the film itself didn't crackle with quite the same sense of character.

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strange_complex: (Eleven dude)
I am horribly behind with Doctor Who reviews, partly because I was in New York when this (half-)season started, and partly because I didn't find the first few episodes very inspirational anyway. This is an attempt to catch up.

7.7 The Bells of Saint John )

7.8 The Rings of Akhaten )

7.9 Cold War )

7.10 Hide )

7.11 Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS )

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strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
As [ profile] foxy76 pointed out yesterday, the original list which I gathered for this meme had a repeat of day 16's question listed for day 23, so I Googled around for some similar memes, found a different question which I liked instead, and am using that.

The answer's pretty simple for me, though. I had a fair number of Dr Seuss books as a child, but the Grinch never crossed my radar until 2000 when the Jim Carrey film came out. Scrooge, meanwhile, I've known about properly since we read A Christmas Carol at school when I was about 11, and in a general cultural references way for longer than that. So his story has much deeper roots in my psyche.

Besides, I've always absolutely loved all the different ghosts and spirits which appear to him - I remember being absolutely fascinated with the description of Marley's chains, and his face appearing in place of the door-knocker the first time I read the story back at school. Clearly gearing up to be a proto-goth right there.

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strange_complex: (Default)

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