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.

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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.
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: (Wicker Man sunset)
This is the second in a series of photo posts, aimed at sharing the highlights of my Romania holiday. I've written an overview of the holiday itself here.

Bram Stoker never visited Romania, drawing his descriptions of the country and its history entirely from library-based research. But that doesn't mean you can't trace the footsteps of his characters through the actual landscape if you do go there - and that, of course, is exactly what the Dracula Society likes to do. The relevant parts of our holiday are shown below, in the order in which they occur in Stoker's novel (though that wasn't the order we did them in).

The novel begins with Jonathan Harker in Bistritz (nowadays more usually spelt Bistrița), writing up his diary from the Golden Crown hotel, where he is staying overnight before travelling up the Borgo Pass to meet Dracula's carriage. The Golden Crown is an invention of Stoker's, but in the early 1970s, an enterprising local businessman built his own 'Coroana de Aur' to capitalise on the western interest in Dracula tourism )

Bistritz is Bistritz, though, and we had plenty of time to wander around it before our lunch. This is what it actually looks like )

In order to reach Castle Dracula, Harker travels up the Borgo Pass from Bistritz in a stage-coach, through "a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses, the blank gable end to the road". Stage-coaches weren't available to us, but from time to time Harker's coach also passes "a leiter-wagon - the ordinary peasants' cart - with its long, snakelike vertebra, calculated to suit the inequalities of the road". These are still in common use in Romania, and enterprising local farmers are very happy indeed to earn extra money transporting parties of Dracula-obsessed tourists through the Borgo Pass, just like Jonathan Harker. Thus it was that on our seventh day, we did this:
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More horseyness )

Dracula failed to meet us at the top of the pass, no doubt because it was still daylight, but his castle awaited:
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More castleyness )

Stoker's novel ends with a wild chase back to Dracula's castle, which sees the party of vampire hunters catching up with the gypsy cart carrying the count back home just as the sun sets. As Mina puts it in her journal:
The sun was almost down on the mountain tops, and the shadows of the whole group fell upon the snow. I saw the Count lying within the box upon the earth, some of which the rude falling from the cart had scattered over him. He was deathly pale, just like a waxen image, and the red eyes glared with the horrible vindictive look which I knew so well. As I looked, the eyes saw the sinking sun, and the look of hate in them turned to triumph.
The count's triumph is short-lived, of course, but still there was something about watching the sun set over the Borgo Pass from the terrace of the Hotel Castle Dracula which momentarily brought him back to life, and will stay with me forever:
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strange_complex: (Tonino reading)
Very neatly, [livejournal.com 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 [livejournal.com 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 [livejournal.com 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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