strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
I am very happy indeed a) that this book exists and b) that I managed to bag one of the original print run of a mere 600 copies for only £35 last year. It now goes for upward of £150 on eBay... The publishers' page is still up, though, and includes several page images which indicate what the book is like: basically a pictorial record of the seven Hammer Dracula films which have Christopher Lee in them (so not Brides or Legend), covering cast pictures, production documentation, behind-the-scenes pictures and publicity material. As such it is of course an absolute treasure-trove.

I'm fairly familiar with the publicity photos and posters, but even they are wonderful to have in high-quality printed form. Meanwhile, the really exciting content was the production documentation, including letters, set designs, pages from shooting scripts etc. From these I learnt several things which I had not known before, such as how the various sets for Dracula fitted together. I had long realised that Harker's bedroom and Dracula's crypt in this film must be essentially the same set re-dressed, because they share the same curved, pointed arches along one wall. However, I never realised before I saw the set drawings in this book that this is actally because they both make use of the area glimpsed between the very same curved, pointed arches in the dining room after they had been blocked off by book-cases to create the library set. (I.e. they are slotted into the shadowy space from which Valerie Gaunt's vampire woman first appears when Harker is in the dining room.) Nor did I know, as correspondence with the censor for Risen reveals, that the name of the Monsignor's niece in this film was originally to have been Gisela. The switch to Maria in the final film was of course a sound move, since it is more familiar to Anglophone audiences, as well as accentuating her virginal purity and connection with a Catholic clergyman. Meanwhile, Gisela did not go to waste: the name was repurposed for the unfortunate girl found in the bell at the beginning of the film, whose coffin Dracula goes on to steal once he has been reawakened from the icy stream.

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Also very illuminating were Terence Fisher's hand-written notes on Jimmy Sangster's original script for Dracula 1958. They're written on plain pages, rather than on the script itself, so you can't see what Sangster actually wrote - only Fisher's reactions. But that is enough to make it very clear that Sangster's first draft must have included far more scenes from the original novel than ever made it into even the shooting script, never mind the film. Scenes or characters which Fisher is reacting to include for example Harker in an inn before he ever reaches the castle, the three vampire brides, the 'child in a sack' scene, Harker gashing Dracula in the head, the Demeter, Renfield and Quincy Morris. And what Fisher is saying about them includes things like "cut", "keep till later?", "new character unexplained and uninteresting", "make it a pre-title sequence?" etc. This is absolutely revelatory, because the standard line until now has always been about how the efficiency of the script reflects Sangster's instinct for what could be achieved on a small budget. But I now see that his original draft must actually have followed Stoker's novel fairly closely, while most of the credit for that ruthless efficiency really belongs to Fisher.

In between the images runs a concise and generally useful supporting text from Kinsey, but I was struck by the fact that he doesn't always seem to recognise the full value of the material he himself is presenting. So, in spite of having treated us to Fisher's observations on Sangster's first draft, he still reports the usual story about how Sangster "was given Bram Stoker's novel to adapt, which he achieved again within Hammer's modest budget" only a few pages later. I spotted a couple of mistakes, too. The double-page spread on Francis Matthews in Prince calls his character Alan (rather than Charles), while a similar spread about Patrick Troughton as Klove in Scars claims that he passed on the mantle of Doctor Who to Tom Baker (not directly!).

That is to quibble, though. On the whole this is an absolutely superb collection which huge amounts of work must have gone into, and which I am certain I will keep returning to over the years. Three thousand cheers that my favourite films in all the world have received this splendid tribute.
strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
Tom Holland is best known to me for writing utterly conventional popular history books away from which I periodically have to steer my students, and nowadays also for behaving as though this somehow makes him a uniquely insightful commentator on world affairs on Twitter. (It doesn't.) But it turns out that in the mid-'90s he wrote a really rather splendid book about Lord Byron becoming a vampire. I only found out about it after the DracSoc Diodati summer bicentenary trip to Lake Geneva (LJ / DW), so missed out on reading it as part of my pre-trip prep, but probably reading it afterwards steeped in everything else I had read and seen was the best way anyway.

The start feels very, very mid-'90s, in a way that I never realised while living through it at the time that that decade could. I don't think Holland actually says that Rebecca, his wordly and professional yet nervous red-headed heroine, is wearing a scrunchie, but, metaphorically, she is. By chapter 2, though, we have moved on to a vampire Lord Byron telling her the story of how he became what he is, and that is where things really take off. Holland had obviously researched Byron's real life history very thoroughly, and blends that together with the gothic motifs of his own literature, eastern Mediterranean history and vampire lore to create something absolutely magical. We have storms and bandits in the mountains, disturbing local superstitions, a beautiful young person of ambiguous gender… and then we meet the Pasha. Vakhel Pasha, whose huge castle in the mountains stands over an ancient temple to Hades, deep beneath Byzantine, Venetian and Islamic superstructures; who has read and mastered all the teachings humanity has to offer; who can walk among the stars and call to Byron in his dreams; and whose castle and its village are peopled with dead-eyed ghoulish disciples. He is essentially Dracula with a little more historical and cultural depth, and I absolutely loved him – so ancient, so powerful, so loathsome, so malignant!

Byron's time with the Pasha, (involuntary) transformation into a vampire by him and eventual escape take up almost half the novel, and had me absolutely captivated. I really felt like Holland had seen the full potential implications of the Romantic tradition and vampire lore, and brought them to their beautiful apogee. After that, though, I found the rest of the novel a little disappointing. The fundamental problem which Holland faces is, having transformed Byron into a vampire c. 1810, how does he then carry him through the remaining fourteen years of his well-documented human lifetime while maintaining that conceit?

Now, in fairness, if you are going to do this, Holland has approached it quite cleverly. His vampires can walk around in the sunshine, eat food and father children, so Byron can pass for human without difficulty: he just has some special powers, thirsts for blood, and will burn up in the sun if he doesn't get it. Holland also draws on Byron's own vision in The Giaour of a vampire fatefully driven to drink the blood of its own family to create a tragic secret for Byron and explain much of his real-life behaviour: that he particularly craves the blood of his own descendants, and now also needs it in the present day to restore his beloved yet shriveled and ancient vampire bride to youth and beauty. This is fine and makes for a pretty decent second half of the novel, but the obligation to chug through all the main known events of Byron's lifetime alongside it does lead to rather a lot of scenes which don't serve the vampire story-line very effectively, and certainly wouldn't be in there if Holland weren't constrained by his historical framework.

Still, as I say, I think Holland handled the basic conceit of Byron-as-a-vampire about as well as he possibly could have done, and the first half of the novel in particular very much justifies the whole. It's one I will almost certainly read again at some point in the future, and would highly recommend.
strange_complex: (Leeds owl)
3. Mary Shelley (1818), Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

I read this in preparation for a trip to Geneva with the Dracula Society, organised to mark the bicentenary of the famous wet weekend in the Villa Diodati which gave rise to it (and to Polidori's 'The Vampyre'). I never wrote about the trip here in any detail, because it came half way through my Mum's final illness, and just at the point when we were really starting to realise that it was final. I spent a lot of the time while I was there worrying and checking my phone for updates, and then all the time after I got back just trying to cope while also carrying a pretty heavy load of work commitments. So the trip itself was a rather strained experience; but what I did get out of it was very much enhanced by my pre-holiday reading. I believe in the case of the novel it was my third time reading it, the first and second times being once in my mid-to-late-teens and another in my mid-twenties. Both well pre-date my habit of book-blogging here anyway, so as far as LJ / DW is concerned this is the first time. That makes it a pity that I didn't manage to do so while it was all fresh in my mind, but I did actually make a few notes about this one while reading it at the time, so I can do a slightly better job than with most of these catch-up reviews.

Obviously, it is a great novel. That isn't to say it's perfect. My mental red pen was particularly exercised by the way Justine was introduced: in the middle of a letter from Elizabeth to Victor, where she takes it upon herself to recount the entire story of how Justine came to be part of their household, even though Victor would of course already know all of this. I could see him as he read it turning over the pages in bafflement thinking "Why the hell is she telling me all this? Get onto something I don't know!" But hey, Mary was only 18 when she began writing the thing, and did it all in longhand while on the road through Switzerland and Italy. Let's cut her some slack. What she created here was innovative, genre-defining, gripping and incredibly cleverly put together.

Reading it now, I'm much more aware of its literary and historical context than I think I've been on previous encounters. Previously I think I have just accepted it as a gothic novel because that it how it is usually marketed, and also viewed it through the filters of its many film adaptations. It certainly is in the gothic arena, as you would expect given that Mary started writing the novel as an entry in a ghost story competition. It draws on established gothic tropes like descriptions of wild landscapes and huge, powerful storms; Victor's great moment of inspiration for how to build his creature happens in a charnel-house (what more gothic?); and he later uses a vampire metaphor to describe the effects of the creature on his family, saying that it is as though he himself had risen from the grave to murder them (exactly what Byron's vampire in The Giaour is condemned to do, as Mary must have known). But I think I understand the Romantic movement better now than I did when I first encountered Frankenstein, and I see now that its central themes of man's hubris, the rejection of technology and the nostalgic glorification of nature make it a Romantic novel more than anything else: again, totally unsurprisingly given who Mary was hanging out with while she wrote it. It's also frequently touted as the 'first Sci-Fi' novel, which of course isn't in the least bit incompatible with the other genres: it can be a Romantic novel which draws on gothic tropes while also sowing the seeds of something new. On the SF front, I was struck in particular coming to the book after many years of film adaptations by how very little scientific detail Mary provides about the creation of the creature. All those big set-pieces with sawing-and-stitching montages, lighting storms and of course bubbling equipment are entirely a product of the movie industry; Mary in fact skims very lightly over the creation process and gets on to its consequences instead. But SF-ness doesn't just lie in sciencey-science and techno-babble. I felt that her use of the creature's perspective to consider what our world might look like to an adult intelligence dropped into it without prior knowledge did justify describing it as an SF novel. In any case, certainly speculative fiction.

I think I was also alert to issues around social class this time in a way I haven't been on previous readings. For all Mary's radical family background, she certainly believes in a strong overlap between high social status and inherent worth. It's noticeable that her idealised family in the cottage turn out to be from a fallen 'good' family, rather than just being normal working people, and her account of how the Frankenstein family 'rescue' blonde aristocratic Elizabeth from the dark Italian peasant family who have taken her in practically slides into eugenics. More interestingly, though, there is a lot of anxiety detectable here. The narratives of the cottage family, Elizabeth and Victor's mother are all about people of once-high status who have fallen on hard times; a theme which must have felt potent for Mary after having thrown in her lot with Shelley at the cost of her father's disapproval and constant financial instability.

As for the characters, have I realised on previous readings what self-absorbed whiny little fuck Victor is? I'm not sure, but I found him almost unbearable this time around. He actually claims his suffering is worse than Justine's when she is about to be executed for a murder she didn't commit, on the grounds that at least she knows she's innocent. Fuck off! I've always known the novel was written to explore both sides of the creator / created relationship, inviting our sympathy for the creature as much as Victor, but on this read I massively preferred the creature, in spite of his cottage-burning anger management issues. I'm sure Mary intended us to find them both flawed, but at least the creature seems to start off with basically decent instincts, only to be drive to murderous extremes by the way other people treat him. Victor has no such excuse that I can see, creating his own woes, exacerbating them by behaving like an absolute wanker to everyone who tries to help him, and crying about how hard-done-by he is all the while. No to that, thank you very much.


4. Andrew McConnell Stott (2014), The Poet and the Vampyre: the curse of Byron and the birth of literature's greatest monsters / 4.5. parts of Daisy Hay (2010), Young Romantics: the Shelleys, Byron and other tangled lives

This was the other side of my pre-holiday reading: historical background about the famous Diodati weekend and the authoring of Frankenstein and 'The Vampyre'. The book by McConnell Stott I bought myself after Googling for something to help me understand the context for our holiday, and I definitely chose well. It is very much focused on the Diodati weekend and what came out of it, but includes plenty on the run-up and aftermath as well. The one by Hay was lent to me by the lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and offers a broader general take on the Byron / Shelley phenomenon, so I just read one chapter and a few other snippets which dealt with the relevant material.

I hadn't realised before starting on either just how well-documented the movements of the people concerned actually were. More or less everyone involved was busy writing diaries or letters about what they did, which is why such detailed accounts of the events of the Geneva trip are possible. Stott made really good use of these, quoting from them at length and providing proper scholarly notes at the back of the book which I appreciated. His style is far from dry and academic, though – often his book reads almost like a novel in its own right, and I felt very engrossed and involved with all the characters. I won't try to recount everything I learnt from it, but I will note down the one thing which struck me most powerfully: viz. that Claire Clairmont is an absolute bad-ass! She is so often either left out of accounts of the Villa Diodati weekend altogether, or portrayed as the ditzy one who was just there to fuck Byron and wasn't on the same intellectual level as the others. But her surviving letters and memoirs make it very clear indeed that this was far from the case. Yes, she did want to fuck Byron, but for a girl of her age in the early 19th century to conceive of that goal and travel half-way across Europe to make good on it frankly isn't to be sniffed at. As for her intellect, she was brought up alongside Mary in the same radical intellectual household, and she clearly benefitted from it. Just because she didn't become a published poet or novelist doesn't mean she was thick.

Anyway, Mary and Claire got the last laugh in the end, outliving all the ridiculous, self-obsessed men in their lives by several decades each. Claire even wrote a set of memoirs in her old age hauling both Byron and Shelley over the coals, and not without cause. She was absolutely part of it all, and I'll never stand by and let her be erased from the Diodati story again.


That trip to Geneva

As already mentioned above, I never did write this trip up at the time and I can't now in detail, but I may as well include a few notes about it while I am looking back over the relevant reading material. We were there from the 3rd to 5th of June, c. ten days before the 1816 night of the ghost story competition (16th June), and at a time when the full party had all already arrived in the Geneva area. On the first day we went to the Villa Diodati itself, of course, followed by a bicentennial exhibition about its occupants at the nearby Bibliotheca Bodmeriana which was absolutely amazing: they had portraits of all five of the Diodati contingent, practically the whole of Mary Shelley's manuscript for Frankenstein, absolutely loads of other personal documents and effect of those concerned, and tons of fascinating material about the later impact of Frankenstein - e.g. play-bills for early theatrical versions of it. Then on the following days we went to Chillon Castle at the other end of Lake Geneva, which Byron visited and wrote a poem about, and which had its own bicentennial exhibition focused primarily on him, and then to Gruyères, of cheese fame, which also had a very nice castle as well as a festival going on in the medieval village and cows lounging about on the hillside just outside. These are a few pictures, showing all of us at the Villa Diodati, the boat arriving to take us home from Chillon, and me in the castle at Gruyères with a huge downpour bucketing down behind me.

Diodati full gang crop.jpg

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2016-06-05 12.29.46.jpg
strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
More book reviews. At least we have made it into 2016 now.


1. S.T. Joshi, ed. (2005), M.R. James: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories

M.R. James! I like him enough that he has his own tag (LJ / DW). I have been to live readings of his stories, I own the DVD box set of most of their TV adaptations, and I even went to a conference about him in 2016 (LJ / DW). However, until I acquired this Penguin two-volume collection of his ghost stories, I hadn't actually systematically read them all: only those in his first published collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and a few others at random in collected volumes or online. Reading the whole lot is of course a great pleasure, and these two volumes are good, with helpful introductions, suggestions for further reading (on James generally and on individual stories), and well-chosen appendices of related material: e.g. James' introductions to the various collected volumes of stories published during his lifetime and his rare (and brief!) published reflections on the genre of the ghost story. The only omission I regretted is his supernatural story for children, 'The Five Jars', but then again it is a) quite long and b) not really a ghost story in the same sense as the other material in these books, so I entirely understand why the editor left it out. (Anyway, writing this has prompted me to see if it's available for Kindle: it is, and for zero pence too, so now I have that lined up as a future pleasure.)

This first volume is basically his first two published collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories. That meant I'd read all of the first half and most of the second, but I re-read them anyway because a) they're great and b) it helped me to see how his style had evolved over time. Fairly unsurprisingly, all of the stories in this volume are extremely strong, and I knew most of the ones I hadn't read before from various dramatic adaptations. In fact, I think I'm right in saying the only two I didn't know were the last two: 'Martin's Close', in which the central motif of a wronged girl emerging out of a pond to avenge herself reminded me strongly of The Ring, and 'Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance', which I felt was a bit weaker but still made good use of the potential creepiness of 18th-century landscape gardens; topiary, mazes, funerary monuments and all. Best rediscoveries: 'Lost Hearts' (I don't usually get actually scared by tales of the supernatural, but the boy in the bath-tub does elicit a 'pleasing terror'), 'The Mezzotint' (some of the dialogue is absolutely hilarious, especially if you've been to Oxbridge), 'The Ash-Tree' ("something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten…"), 'Number 13' (really love the interplay between the supernatural goings-on and the protagonist's historical research) and 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral' ("There is no kitchen cat"). I also don’t think I had realised before that the opening words of 'Count Magnus', which is essentially a vampire story (though James keeps the details subtle and ambiguous) operate as a direct intertext to Dracula:
Dracula: How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them.
Count Magnus: By what means the papers out of which I have made a connected story came into my hands is the last point which the reader will learn from these pages.

Obviously James makes quite frequent use of the device of 'found papers' presented by an authorial voice, which must have worked particularly well for his original audience of fellow Kings College scholars. But I think the specific wording there, in a vampire story with the word 'Count' in the title, is close enough and obvious enough to be a nod we are invited to notice. As one of the speakers at the conference I went to (I'm 95% sure Ramsey Campbell) noted, 'Count Magnus' has since returned the favour, lending its motif of closed padlocks mysteriously falling from a coffin, whose lid then hinges upwards, to Hammer's The Brides of Dracula (1960).


2. S.T. Joshi, ed. (2006), M.R. James: The Hanted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories

This second volume basically contains everything else: the contents of two further volumes published during James' lifetime (A Thin Ghost and Others and A Warning to the Curious) and whatever further stories appeared in magazines etc. towards the end of his life or posthumously. Collectively and on average, they aren't quite on the same level as those in volume 1, but they are all still very much worth reading, and some are very strong: e.g. 'The Residence at Whitminster' (the one about the saw-flies), 'The Diary of Mr. Poynter' ("no feature was discernible, only hair") 'An Episode of Cathedral History' (another vampire story!), 'A View from a Hill' (necromantic binoculars), and of course 'A Warning to the Curious' (aka the Three Crowns). I was perhaps most fascinated by the very last entry, though, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories', which aren't actually by James at all, but are collected in a manuscript originally written at Byland Abbey, Yorkshire. James' role was to notice their existence, transcribe them from the original manuscript, and publish them in The English Historical Review complete with a introduction and annotations. In other words, this is where his lives as a scholar used to working with medieval manuscripts and as an author of ghost stories of his own met. He didn't translate the Latin text himself, but others have since. A class of Latin students have put their translation online along with lots of contextual detail including a picture of the manuscript, and another is provided in this volume. The content of the stories is very different from James'. They are typically about unquiet spirits who appear to ordinary people in ordinary country settings, sometimes changing shape as they do so, and who need to be helped into the afterlife by being absolved of some past sin. James' ghosts are usually far less concrete but far more malevolent, and their appearances far more targeted: generally at people whose past crimes or indecent curiosity need punishing. But still the Yorkshire tales have a very distinct charm all of their own, especially when read in Leeds. I am very grateful to M. R. James for bringing them to the public attention.

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