Monday, 24 December 2012

My favourite short stories (2)

The Shadow-Cage by Philippa Pearce
Philippa Pearce was a children's writer from Cambridgeshire, and she is most famous for her children's novel Tom's Midnight Garden.

'The Shadow-Cage' is a supernatural story about witchcraft and I particularly like the rural setting for the story. It obviously has a Cambridgeshire setting, which is similar to the area where I myself grew up in South Lincolnshire. Ned Challis is a farmer, who finds an ancient glass bottle with a stopper when he is ploughing a field. He allows his daughter Lisa to keep the bottle, before remembering only later that he found it near the site of an old witch's house that burnt down. His daughter Lisa takes it to school, where her cousin Kevin wants the bottle and takes it from her. After a day at school, he forgets it and leaves it in the school playground. In the middle of the night Kevin remembers it, and decides to go and fetch it at the stroke of midnight...only to fall into the grasp of old sorcery. When Kevin returns to the playground he encounters the shadow-cage and the mysterious, elusive Whistlers...

The whistlers were in no hurry. The first whistle had come from right across the fields. Then there was a long pause. Then the sound was repeated, equally distantly, from the direction of the river bridges. Later still, another whistle from the direction of the railway line, or somewhere near it.

The Room in the Tower by E.F Benson
Edward Frederic Benson was a late 19th-century/early 20th century English author of novels, short stories and biographies. His elder brother Arthur Christopher Benson wrote the lyrics to Edward Elgar's patriotic song "Land of Hope and Glory".  E.F Benson wrote a broad range of material, including numerous horror and supernatural stories of considerable power. One of the best of these is 'The Room in the Tower'.
It begins with the protagonist experiencing a recurring dream of attending an old school friend's gathering at a mysterious mansion. Everyone there sits in silence. The old school friend's name is Jack Stone, and at the end of the tea party, Mrs Stone (the old school friend's mother) announces: “Jack will show you your room: I have given you the room in the tower.” The protagonist experiences the dream for many years, and curiously the people in it age accordingly over that period of time. After a while, the dreamer understands that Mrs Stone has died, and on that occasion the people attending the party wear black. Yet it is still Mrs Stone's voice who announces "I have given you the room in the tower" and the dreamer sees a gravestone on the lawn: In evil memory of Julia Stone. When the dreamer goes up into the room in the tower, it is darker than normal and he feels a sense of decay. He wakes up screaming.
Then, one fateful day, the protagonist is invited in reality to stay at a house by another friend, John Clinton. He arrives at the house only to discover that it is exactly like the mansion in his sinister dream...he is given the room in the tower where he discovers a portrait hanging:
It represented Mrs Stone as I had seen her last in my dreams: old and withered and white-haired. But in spite of the evident feebleness of body, a dreadful exuberance and vitality shone through the envelope of flesh, an exuberance wholly malign, a vitality that foamed and frothed with unimaginable evil. Evil beamed from the narrow, leering eyes: it laughed in the demonlike mouth. The whole face was instinct with some secret and appalling mirth; the hands, clasped together on the knee, seemed shaking with suppressed and nameless glee.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Thoughts on reading (George R R Martin)

Like his hordes of fans, I'm absorbed in George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series of epic fantasy novels (many people may be more aware of the TV dramatisation Game of Thrones, the title of which is taken from the first book in the series) I have just finished reading Dance of Dragons and like many I will be waiting patiently for the final two novels in the series, Winds of Winter and Dream of Spring. There are a lot of people commenting on these books and publishing their thoughts; I thought I would share some of mine.

The Song of Ice and Fire is epic dark fantasy, with obvious inspiration from varied sources such as Shakespearean tragedy; the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's historical fiction, most notably The White Company; J.R.R Tolkien's work and Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels; not to mention Martin's contemporaries such as Raymond E.Feist and Anne McCaffrey. The pseudo-medieval setting and culture is very familiar in fantasy fiction. What makes this series stand out though is the mighty scale and sheer ambition of Martin's imagination. He has created a vast and vivid Fantasy world, a War and Peace of fantasy novels; different continents populated by flawed, complex characters; a world with its own history and religions. The reader finds themselves caring passionately about the main character's gripping adventures and possible fates. The cast includes a lengthy array of sorcerers, priests, soldiers, knights, heirs, Kings, Queens, Lords, servants, sell-swords, skin-changers, warriors, maids, slaves, merchants, pirates, dragons, princes, princesses and numerous aristocratic Houses. Plots and subplots are set against a dark and dangerous backdrop.

The story of A Song of Ice and Fire takes place on the continents Westeros and Essos, with a history of thousands of years. The series is told in the third person by point of view characters, who number over thirty by the fifth novel. Three principle plots become interwoven: the political intrigue and battle (the "Game of Thrones") for control of Westeros by several aristocratic Houses; the rising threat of the previously dormant supernatural and zombie-like Others dwelling beyond an immense wall of ice on Westeros' northern border; and the growing ambition of Daenerys Targaryen, the exiled daughter of a king murdered in a civil war shortly before her birth, to return to Westeros with her fire-breathing dragons and claim her rightful throne.

The scope of Martin's achievement is deeply impressive. He has been working on the series for almost twenty years now. The number of plot threads that he is weaving together and juggling is quite incredible.  As an aspiring author, I admire (and am quite envious of) his ability to keep so many plot threads dangling while the reader continues to be hooked by his epic tale.  Some people have criticised him for the expanding length of the series and killing off major characters- I disagree, I think these aspects are integral to the success and popularity of the books (and the TV series). So many of Martin's characters are interesting because they are damaged- mentally/emotionally or physically, and sometimes both. My favourite character, Tyrion Lannister, is a perfect example of this but this is reflected in other characters: his siblings Cersei and Jaime; Davos Seaworth; Jon Snow; Theon Greyjoy and many others.

I will say very little about the detail of the plots as I see no sense in giving away the story in this article and revealing spoilers- there's absolutely no fun in that, and the beauty of these novels lies in their delicious unexpected plot twists and surprises. There is a real sense of the sinister; of evil and treachery in these books. Martin's world is ravaged; often mysterious and cruel.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Thoughts on reading (Bram Stoker)

Bram Stoker is most famous as the author of Dracula, the Victorian novel which took the vampire myth and centred it within the modern popular consciousness through the medium of literature and cinema. It's a classic obviously- I also own and have read The Jewel of Seven Stars, which is an excellent, spine-tingling supernatural tale by Stoker based around Egyptian mythology. I decided to download and read two lesser known works by Bram Stoker, The Lady of the Shroud and The Lair of the White Worm.

I discovered that they were lesser known for a good reason. The Lady of the Shroud is written in the same epistolary form as Dracula, advancing the narrative from different point-of-view perspectives, but this structure doesn't quite work for this novel.

The mystery of 'The Lady' herself is solved halfway through the novel, and what had begun as an eerie Gothic tale becomes a predictable and cliched 'Boys Own' Victorian adventure, dipping into piracy and Balkan politics, and dripping with sentimentality.

The novel begins and concludes in a dry fashion: the opening is dominated by dry legal affairs and notes which set up the novel's central premise; the hero, Rupert St Leger, inheriting a ruined castle on the Balkan coast. This is livened up only by the observations of the priggish Ernest Melton and his equally insufferable relations. They add some light relief and provide some of the more entertaining elements. The novel concludes with happy-ever-after observations of political ceremony. The climax is dominated by pomp and circumstance as the tale gradually grinds to a halt and outstays its welcome.

The best passages of the novel are its sinister prologue with elusive promise of the supernatural; Rupert's first mysterious encounters with 'The Lady'; and Ernest Melton's humorous passages, yet sadly the novel never quite lives up to its promise.

I also read the shorter novel The Lair of the White Worm, notable for its loose cinematic adaptation starring Hugh Grant and Amanda Donohoe, and directed by Ken Russell. A lurid, unsettling Victorian horror story, at times it is unintentionally absurd and also quaint and dated in its attitudes toward women and race. Although conceptually ridiculous, Stoker's ability to create memorable and sinister characters in the form of Lady Arabella and Edgar Caswell redeem the story somewhat. The ideas of psychic domination and mesmeric power in this novel echoed concepts I found in Aleister Crowley's novel Moonchild.