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 [livejournal.com 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: (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 [livejournal.com profile] matgb and [livejournal.com 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, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan, Dracula-enabler that she is, found me a copy in a local charity shop, and I got stuck in.

Between them, [livejournal.com profile] matgb and [livejournal.com 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 [livejournal.com 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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