Monday, 25 July 2011

The Historian/Vampire fiction

I finally got around to reading 'The Historian' by Elizabeth Kostova this past week. I enjoyed reading it, but it wasn't quite as good as I hoped it would be.

It obviously carried a debt of inspiration to Bram Stoker, and was written in epistolary form as an appropriate tribute. However, I don't think the structure of the narrative with the changes in chronology helped the story. It was also difficult to distinguish a distinct change in narrative tone between the three separate characters of Bartolomeo Rossi, Paul and his daughter, and I found myself flicking back to double check where I was exactly in the story and who was writing this particular missive.

Another problem was the fact that the story wasn't really that frightening. 'The Historian' is a book with wonderful prose, and Kostova describes the scenic travelogue sections of the novel with marvellous skill, and some sections of it are very atmospheric. Yet maybe the traditional vampire depiction does not carry that notion of fear that it once did. After all, in Stoker's Victorian England the vampire was something alien and provocative within a repressive society: it represented the orient, sexual abandon, primal desires and post-Darwinian evolutionary degeneration. In the modern era, the vampire represents something different- he's almost a romantic, idealised figure, the brooding social outcast. He's the tall, dark and handsome hot guy at your high school (see Buffy, the Twilight stories, Robert Pattinson etc)

Apparently this book has been compared to Dan Brown's 'Da Vinci Code'. Apart from the superficial similarities of the merger of history/myth, a quest for the truth plot and a male/female character bumbling around dusty old chapels and monasteries, the books are quite different. Kostova is a much better writer.

For a modern re-interpretation of the vampire myth specifically in relation to Dracula, instead of Kostova's book I would recommend Peter Tremayne's 'Dracula Lives!' trilogy.

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Baron's Cheesecake (or; a Quest with a Difference)

AUTHORS NOTE: (I was going through some old papers and notes recently, and I discovered this old story amongst my materials. It's a short piece of fiction for children, entitled 'The Baron's Cheesecake'. It's a short story written in a comic fairy tale style. I think I wrote it in 2001 or 2002. Having re-discovered it, I've decided to publish it online and make it available for people to read - SM)


The Baron’s Cheesecake (or, a quest with a difference)

“Delicious! Truly delicious!” said the Baron, as he devoured the very last morsel of steaming partridge pie. “May I compliment you on such excellent food and a splendid dish!”

The cook, who was a nervous, quivering, and obsequious man when in the Baron’s presence, let out a gasp of relief. He had been watching apprehensively from the opposite end of the dining table, wringing his hands with trepidation like an old woman. They were in the Great Hall of the castle, underneath the oak rafters of the wooden ceiling and surrounded by the pennant and trophy adorned stone walls of the hall. The cook was as much a thin, narrow-faced man as the Baron was rather fat. “Th-thank you, Baron”, he stuttered.

The Baron pushed the dirty plate and its very sparse remaining dregs of food away from him, and let out a resounding belch. He was a grossly overweight and bloated man with a round puffy face which glowed red during all seasons of the year. He had taken to wearing always black and over-eating ever since his wife, the late lamented Baroness, had died.

“I- I’m glad you enjoyed it, Baron”, the cook said with a somewhat relieved voice. He let out a nervous titter.

“Indeed I did, cook. Now…” the Baron said, wiping his thick-lipped, fleshy and loose mouth with his napkin. “What about the cheesecake?”

The cook’s anxious and humourless laugh caught in his throat. He spluttered and coughed. “Baron…” he said, once he had managed to attain some control over himself. “What cheesecake?”

The Baron gave him a long, penetrating stare. His eyebrows knitted together like heavy dark thunderclouds rushing across the sky when a storm is coming. “The cheesecake”, he said slowly, with his deep voice. “The cheesecake I specifically asked for.”

The cook gulped and started to wring his hands together once more. He wished that the stone slabs of the hall floor would swallow him up. The Baron watched him, and his expression began to darken with each passing moment when the cook did not speak.

“Cook, am I to assume by your silence that you have failed to cook me my favourite dessert? Are you seriously telling me that there is no Silver Pear cheesecake?” The Baron’s voice began to rise in modulation. “Is that what you’re telling me, cook?” he shrieked. “Is that what you’re telling me?”

“B-but B-B-Baron, I-I a-a-assure you, I-I was n-not informed!” the cook began to splutter and stutter.

I’ll give you not informed!” the Baron cried, and he leapt out of his chair with an explosion of curses, crumbs, and napkins. In fact, he moved surprisingly quickly for such a plump, rotund, fellow. This fortunately broke the cook’s paralysis. He let out a high-pitched cry of terror, and turned to race out of the hall, his knobbly knees pumping frantically. The Baron waddled after him, shaking his fist and hurling abuse. The cook was genuinely frightened, for he knew that if the Baron did succeed in catching up with him there would be some serious bone-breaking to be done. The cook flung himself through the hall entrance, along a dimly-lit corridor and down several flights of stone stairways. Luckily for him, the Baron gave up the chase on the second flight of stairs. Puffing and panting, the Baron sat down on one of the steps. As he did so, he noticed something white lying on the floor at the bottom. He could see it vaguely in the flickering torchlight. Curious, he got to his feet with a low groan (he was a very fat man unfortunately, and it cost him considerable effort), waddled down and picked it up. As he bent over to pick up the mysterious object a few buttons popped in his expensive silk black shirt and bounced off the stone steps. He could now see by the light of the torch that what he was holding was the cook’s chef hat. Furiously, he tossed it back down on the ground. It had reminded him that there was a gaping hole in his stomach which needed to be filled by his favourite dessert. He let out an immense roar which seemed to issue from deep within his flabby body.

I want my cheesecake!”

The sound of the Baron’s voice echoed up and down the stairwell. In dark crevices of the castle turrets, spider webs trembled. The cry travelled through all corners of the castle, where nearly every occupant heard at least some faint reverberation of their master’s cry. Handmaidens gliding through corridors paused to listen with a frown, and page boys in their plush quarters looked around and shuddered. Footmen paused in their errands and cursed the cook for under-feeding the Baron. Guards on the battlements and manning the entrance gates gave each other knowing smirks. Scullery boys and girls in the kitchens paused and there was a silent moment when time seemed like it was frozen, much like cheesecake before it thaws. All the usual hustle and bustle, the shouts and frenzied activity and organised chaos of the kitchens was briefly halted. Then, almost as abruptly, they were back to work again, sensing the cook’s imminent arrival. Tradesmen and merchants selling their wares outside the castle perhaps heard the faintest sound. Then they went to their houses, and tents, and cottages, and boats, and their huts and told their wives, family and friends what they had heard, so that the message began to spread through the Barony, like ripples from a stone thrown into a pool…

The Baron wants his cheesecake, the Baron wants his cheesecake…”

*

When the cook returned to the kitchen he found himself at the centre of a noisy, smoke-filled chaotic din. As soon as all his apprentices, workers, scullery boys and scullery maids became aware of his presence the commotion began to subside somewhat. The cook began to rush around the worktops looking around frenetically for someone in particular. Abruptly, he grasped one of his youthful scullions by the collar and shouted: “Where is he?”

“Who? What?” the poor scullion gibbered.

“You know who! That useless fool of a boy Will Aubergine! I want to speak to him!”

The scullion looked into the cook’s frantic, bloodshot eyes, and decided that in this desperate situation it was best to take the prudent course. He pointed toward one of the worktops, which was currently surrounded by busy workers. “He’s under there.”

The cook let go of the scullion’s collar and marched purposefully toward the worktable. The scullery boys and girls who were standing there watched him nervously as he approached, exchanged glances, and quickly dispersed. Two skinny legs clad in purple velvet pantaloons and orange slippers were now clearly visible poking out from underneath the cloth at one end of the table. The cook took hold of these curious legs by the ankles and tugged on them. A thin, spotty teenage boy with a mop of ginger hair was suddenly made visible to all as the cook dragged him out from underneath the worktable.

“Will……!”the cook growled.

“Ah, Cook”, Will Aubergine said while lying on his back on the floor, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. “I was just inspecting the under-section of that table for…unaccountable stains and…wood louse. Yes, possibly wood louse. And also termites. No, not termites as it would be…”

“Shut your trap you ridiculous boy and get to your feet”, the cook snapped at him. “It was plainly obvious to all exactly what you were doing, and that was hiding from me! Got a guilty conscience have we…? Why would that be? Maybe, for example, forgetting to tell me that the Baron asked for cheesecake as his dessert! Silver pear cheesecake, no less!”

Will clambered to his feet and dusted off his purple pantaloons. “Cook, I can explain all that. As you know the Baron has unaccountably long whiskers, quite extraordinarily long in fact, the longest you could possibly see in all the Barony and possibly even the Kingdom, and he also has a tendency to mumble- such a terrible impediment, and when our master mumbles like that through his hairiest follicles, it tends to muffle his words and make it so easy to miss a small detail, like a cheesecake…”

“I don’t wish to hear your contrived excuses and bumbling explanations, Will” the cook said to him. Everyone in the kitchen was now watching their confrontation silently. “The Baron wants his cheesecake. And he will get his cheesecake. He will eat his cheesecake whenever it has been prepared and it is ready, whether it is in the middle of the night, at the dawn of a new day, at breakfast, lunch, dinner or supper. He will eat cheesecake. And no mere strawberry cheesecake, Will. Oh no. Silver pear cheesecake. Do you understand me?”

The boy cleared his throat and frowned. “Well, that’s an interesting point of view. It raises even more interesting questions. Will we, for example, wake the Baron up so he can eat his cheesecake?”

Will!” The cook yelled at him. “What it means is that we need silver pears! We have none! I’m sending you out to obtain them. When you return, we shall make the cheesecake that the Baron craves, and as many silver pear cheesecakes as he wants from that moment onward, until the Baron has tired of that type of cheesecake and no longer requires it. Do you understand me?”

Will Aubergine scratched his pointy chin and sighed. “Cook, do you know how hard it is to find a silver pear? I will probably have to fight a dragon for it or win the heart of a fair maiden. I’m sixteen and I’m ginger. I’m not ready for such responsibility. Send Albanus to find you silver pears.” Will pointed to a chubby lad about his own age, currently standing nearby and listening to their conversation. Albanus’ eyes widened. His mouth dropped open and he began to violently shake his head.

“Will, I’m not sending Albanus – I’m sending you. It’s your problem and it’s your responsibility”, the cook told him firmly. “If you had told me that the Baron wanted cheesecake on the menu I could have told one of the knights to find me silver pears. As you caused this shame I have to bear upon my shoulders, I am sending you. Off you go, lad. Time is of the essence. Remember, we need silver pears- there can be no substitute.”

“I should get a pay rise for this”, Will grumbled to himself, as he shuffled toward the kitchen doorway.

What was that?”

“Nothing.”

*

So he had been ordered to find silver pears, Will Aubergine thought. But the problem was that he had no idea how to find silver pears. Usually he heard of brave knights obtaining them after slaying dragons, outwitting sorcerers or doing favours for beautiful fair maidens who would then reward them with the rare silver pear fruit. Only, he wasn’t a knight. He was a mere scullery boy. But he would probably have to do something similar to get silver pairs. He just didn’t know what exactly.

He left the Baron’s castle and wandered aimlessly down the King’s Highway. He wondered how far he would have to travel before he found a place where he might find silver pears. He had stolen some oranges from the kitchen which filled the pockets of his purple pantaloons, so at least he had something to eat while he roamed the Baron’s lands.

He did not meet any travellers while he wandered down the highway until he saw an old woman coming toward him from the opposite direction. She wore a ragged, dirty grey robe and was hunched over as if her spine was twisted by the strain of many years. She hobbled along very slowly, and only had wisps of grey hair growing from the mottled flesh atop her skull. Her skin was like wrinkled dry parchment covered with hairy warts, and her hollow cheeks were sunken. One of her eyes was filmed over with a milky cataract, and the other remaining eye peered curiously at Will Aubergine as she approached. Suddenly, she tried to smile at him and he saw only one or two remaining yellow teeth protruding like tombstones from wet, inflamed gums. He tried his best not to shudder at the sight.

She had seen that Will was peeling an orange with his small knife, and she spoke to him in a rasping, croaking voice that possessed all the decay and painful desperation of old age, and a slight lisp from her toothless mouth. “Young sir”, she said. “You look like a good boy. Could you spare a poor lonely old lady an orange? It’d be a great kindness.”

Will’s first instinct was to stride on more quickly and ignore the ugly old woman. But then the Good Samaritan in him took over (as it did on mercifully rare occasions), and he felt a pang of conscience. Feeling pity for her, he offered her the peeled orange. The old woman’s one remaining eye lit up, and she eagerly took the orange from him. She bit into it with gum and remaining teeth, and juice trickled from the corners of her mouth. Will wrinkled his nose in distaste, and tried not to look.

“Well, I’d better be off”, he said, but the old woman spoke to him again.

“Young sir…I thank you for your generosity”, she said. “But I ask one more boon. Would you humour an ancient old lady and…give me a kiss? Not on the cheek, but on the lips? Please, young man?”

Will Aubergine looked at the old woman in astonishment. She was the most hideous creature she had ever seen. As he looked at her loose, mushy lips getting ready to pucker up to kiss him and contemplated her warty, wrinkled skin, he was fighting the urge not to be sick.

“Um…I…probably not”, he gasped. “Sorry but have places to go, people to see, things to…”

“Young man”, she croaked. “It’d be a kindness for an old lady. A bit of harmless sweet affection…for a woman who doesn’t get much of that, these days. Pretty please?” She closed her eyes and puckered up her lips even more.

Before he knew what he was doing, Will Aubergine was leaning forward with his own lips at the ready. Might as well get it over and done with and get away from the silly old bat, he thought to himself. How bad could it be? It was just like kissing an auntie or a granny, okay so it was on the lips but…just a little peck and it’d be over. As he leaned down and in for the reluctant kiss, he could smell the scent of oranges on the old lady’s lips which almost masked her revolting halitosis (but not quite), and he detected the cold sores at the corners of her wrinkled, pursed mouth. He closed his eyes. Just for a brief second, he thought. Just a brief second and it’ll all be over-

Yet as his lips made contact with the sloppy lips of the old woman, they immediately locked on his, holding him fast. He could not pull away. Startled, he opened his eyes wide and murmured something intelligible. Then something very strange happened. He felt a strange tingling in his lips which then travelled into his jawbone and up and into his cheeks. Almost at the same time, the old woman he was reluctantly kissing began to transform.

The years fell away from her. Her back straightened and she began to rise up so that she was as tall as he was. The strands of grey hair regained their texture and more hair sprouted, only this hair was golden. It streamed down the nape of her neck and to her shoulders. The warts and wrinkles on her face rapidly disappeared until her complexion was now flawless. The milky cataract in one of her eyes disintegrated and now both eyes were looking into his, and were a perfect clear blue in colour. They now shone with a sparkling delight, and as the woman stepped back from him, she smiled with luscious pink lips- showing him a full set of pearl-white teeth in healthy gums. The hollow sunken cheeks had now formed themselves into sharp high cheekbones.

The woman who stood before Will still wore the dirty grey ragged robe that the old crone before her had, but she was now a beautiful young maiden of twenty with golden hair and blue eyes. Will staggered back from the shock of what had happened, unable to understand exactly what had occurred. Wow, what a kiss. That must have been the greatest kiss of all time, he thought. It had made this woman decades younger.

“What sorcery is this…?” he gasped.

“Young squire”, the blonde woman said, smiling sweetly.  Her breath no longer smelled foul, but bore the scent of cinnamon. Tears of joy trickled down her cheeks. “You have saved me with your generosity. Some months ago an evil witch placed a curse on me, turning me into an ugly, repulsive old woman. The curse could only be broken if I was kissed on the lips by an innocent callow youth. At last, the evil spell has been broken. I thank you for the great service you have done me, you kind boy.”

“Er…whatever…yes….that…is truly remarkable.” Will Aubergine glanced down the Highway to see if there were any witnesses to confirm what had happened, and that he was not going quite mad, but he and the woman were alone together on the road. He had to trust the evidence of his own eyes. “Who are you?”

“I am the Princess Arianna”, she told him. “Who do I have the pleasure of meeting upon this lonely road…?”

“William Aubergine”, he told her, with as much pride as he could muster. “I’m a scullery boy in the Baron’s kitchens.”

“I owe you a boon in return for the one you gave me, young Will”, she said. “What would you ask of me?”

“Your hand in marriage”, Will Aubergine said with the highest degree of certainty and mischievous ambition, and he seized the beautiful princess by the waist. He was consumed by the sudden desire to kiss her again, particularly as she was so much more alluring now than she had been when she was an ugly old crone. But the startled princess instead cried out in alarm, and took a step back, gently removing his hands from her narrow waist.

“Master Aubergine”, she said breathlessly. “I do not doubt the sincerity of your advances. However…I am rather out of your league. Before we even consider the fact that I am of royal lineage and you are a mere…scullery boy, I am also a few years older than you. You are also ginger and spotty. This must be taken into consideration. No, my hand in marriage is not something I can offer you, Master Aubergine. I ask you to reconsider and suggest another boon I may supply you with. Think fast, young sir! I am weary, and the Baron’s castle lies ahead. I will seek respite from my travels, and the opportunity to change into something more…appropriate (Will saw that she looked down at her ragged robe with an expression of distaste at something so terribly vulgar), before I return to my kingdom in my true form to reconcile with my beloved father and my dear brothers.”

She was rather haughtier now she was a hottie once again, Will Aubergine thought sourly to himself, and he suddenly thought he knew exactly why some evil witch would have decided to be so spiteful and make her old and ugly with dark sorcery. In his experience, beautiful young princesses usually tended to not be fair delightful maidens but instead were more frequently conceited, vain and sometimes melodramatic women prone to flights of fancy and impulsive spite toward would-be suitors. However, he managed to cast his disappointed thoughts and emotions out of his mind. The answer to her generous offer had been obvious, and he smiled as the request came to his lips.

*

The following evening, the Baron sat before his dessert at one end of the dining table in the Great Hall. He raised his fork and cut into the cheesecake on the plate before him. Opposite him, the cook wrung his hands with anxiety, hoping that the Baron would be pleased with his recipe. The Baron’s guest-of-honour, the restored Princess Arianna, sat to the Baron’s left and watched her host with a smile playing upon her delicate pretty lips.

The Baron placed the slice of silver pear cheesecake, which was neatly skewered on his fork, upon his tongue. He closed his mouth and chewed slowly, silently.

Beads of sweat dripped down the cook’s forehead.

The Baron swallowed, and then stared silently at the cook for a second that seemed to last like a whole minute, or even an hour. Then the Baron smiled. Slowly, the cook began to relax as the tension eased from his body. The Baron took another bite of cheesecake, and this time chewed it with relish.

The cook grinned and gave a sigh of relief.

“Wonderful cheesecake, cook”, the Baron announced. “Absolutely delicious, the finest dessert I have ever had, truthfully. Cook, you have outdone yourself. I hold you in my highest esteem!”

“Thank you, Baron”, the cook said happily. He respectfully bowed at the waist toward his master.

As Princess Arianna laughed and clapped her hands, the Baron spoke to her. “Your highness, I gather that you were the one who obtained the silver pears that the cook used in his recipe. They are…a unique and delicious fruit, and most rare.”

“Indeed they are, Baron”, Princess Arianna replied. “Upon my eighteenth birthday my father gave me a present of silver pear seeds. They are a magical fruit, with a delicious flavour. Upon planting a seed, the silver pear tree will sprout in a matter of hours, and pears will bloom in abundance. We planted a tree in one of your courtyards- me, the cook, and young Master Aubergine. Baron, you’ll never want for silver pears or silver pear cheesecake again- and truly this magic fruit is the most delicious in the entire world.”

The Baron nodded, closed his eyes and smiled with satisfaction. His appetite had been sated.