Wow, it has been a while since I last wrote on this blog. Nearly 3 months, 25% of a year. I think I got burnt out after writing so much when I first started to blog. Add to that the fact that I didn’t feel as gothic-fiction-like around Christmas and New Years. But, I love the weird and wonderful and I can’t stop reading or writing about it.
I want to start this year off with a book that I read in a day and have read twice. It is a book about a girl living in a new and strange house with other strange people in the apartments above and below. The house is the setting of the gothic imagery and in the house lies secrets and evils. The book is Coraline by Neil Gaiman and if you have never before read a Neil Gaiman story this one is a great place to start.
Yes, her name is Coraline, not Caroline spell check. She and her family just moved to this new house, which is an old Victorian home that has been divided up into three apartments: basement, ground and 3rd floor. Coraline and her parents live on the ground floor and the story does not waste as much time as I do getting to the good part. The first sentence of the book reads,
“Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.”
That is all I shall tell you about the book. Inside the pages are some terrific illustrations by Dave McKean, which you can read more about here. I personally love it when authors add some, not too many, but some clever illustrations to YA stories. There are a total of fifteen illustrations, but they do not take anything away from the stories imagination. What I mean by that is the story still allowed me to use my own imagination.
This book was first published in 2002 and in 2009 director Henry Selick, whom most people know for The Nightmare Before Christmas, help bring Coraline to the big screen. I have to admit that the movie is great, though of course not as good as the book, and there were two scenes that were my favorite in the book that are completely left out in the movie. The transition worked well since the book is fairly short and came with some great imagery. Read the book and then watch the movie. I did.
Neil Gaiman was recently on the radio show Wait Wait Don’t Tell me, interview here, and he talked about where he came up with the idea for the book. Basically he wrote about what he had experienced and what he knows. He mentions in the interview, “When I was a kid, we actually lived in a house that had been divided in two at one point, which meant that one room in our house opened up onto a brick wall. And I was convinced all I had to do was just open it the right way and it wouldn’t be a brick wall. So I’d sidle over to the door and I’d pull it open.” Sadly it was always a brick wall, but not for Coraline.
To learn more about the wonder that is Neil Gaiman you can visit his website here, at mouse circus here or just google him and see what you find. If you are on facebook or twitter Neil is always blogging and post his thoughts and ideas.
Since I mentioned briefly in the last post the fantastic stories of M.R. James I thought that he was owed his own post. So here it is.
As I mentioned in that article I first found his book of ghost stories while browsing through a used bookstore in Belfast a few years ago. I had never before heard of him, but the title caught my eye since it included the word ‘Ghost’ and the price seemed more than fair, which was one pound, about two dollars. I bought it and quickly began reading that afternoon in mid september.
I instantly loved the stories and found that each one was better than the previous. I have read many collections of stories and often I find that by the end I want to be done so that I can read something else and walk away from the collection knowing that I had read that that there was to read. Not this book, not his stories. Each year, right about this time of the seasons, I reread many of his stories, which have held up over time.
What makes his stories so powerful is their atmosphere and their ability to turn a normal situation one of terror. He has a great ability to use his words to capture the atmosphere of the 19th century in foreign lands and bring them to our modern day eyes and imagination. His sense of details and how those details can and should be used is both fantastic and horrific. Please, if you have never read his work, buy or check out a collection of his stories and read them this Halloween and over the winter months.
From his collection of stories I say that his best are The Ash Tree, Number 13, Count Magnus, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral and my favorite among favorites, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.’ In each one of these stories we find the questions, ‘can ghosts really cause us harm?’ To which James’ characters answer, ‘yes, they can.’ His horror is more than a bump in the attic or the creak of a door, it is a hand that reaches out the door of a room that cannot always be found, reaching for the neck of an innocent. His stories teach us that when you visit and old town or structure, be careful what you might wake up.
Part of James’ ability to craft such stores comes from his education and his profession as a medieval scholar. He lived from 1862 – 1936 in England and was the Provost of King’s college from 1905 – 1918. If Bram Stoker is the father of the modern vampire, James is arguably the father of the modern day ghost story. There are stories that he used to have gatherings in his study at King’s College around Christmas and at these gatherings he would read his stories. Believe me when I say that many of them are frightening.
It seems like many great writers of the macabre come from this time period, the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century. It could be that they lived on the bridge from the world of candle light darkness as well as on the brink of the light bulb of the modern era. From where they stood, Stoker, James, Conan Doyle, Stevenson and even Le Fanu and Lovecraft all could see the world they came from and the future where they were heading.
Each of these writers focused on the old parts of this world what has survived, been forgotten and rediscovered by some scholar or explore of nature, science and history. From them come works that have survived for us to read at night by the light of our modern world. These stories remind us that there is still much that is unknown about our world and in that unknown you can find your own imagination.
These famous words were spoken by a character known as “second Witch” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Arguably one of Shakespeare’s most well known plays, it brings to mind gothic ideas. A dark castle with ghosts, murder and treasonous plots hatched in the middle of the night. There are witches who speak portentous words and those words excite a feeling of anticipation of a coming unknown menace. Together they make the perfect title for the superb novel by Ray Bradbury.
This novel is perhaps my favorite story and has been since my father introduced it to me when I was a teenager. At the time I did not know the history behind the title, but every time I read Shakespeare I think of this gothic tale. And yes, I would argue the idea that Shakespeare was a gothic playwright long before the term gothic was used as a genre in literature. Of all Ray Bradbury’s books I have read, none of them have stayed with me the way this wonderful story has. I have read it multiple times and each time I find something new hidden by the master of the macabre in his precious pages. (The sign of a great book.)
Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story about two 13-year-old boys named Jim Nightshade and William Halloway. They are more like brothers than best friends partially since they were born minutes apart on either side of midnight on October 30th (Will before Halloween, Jim in the first moments of Halloween). Though the two are very alike they come from different families that happen to live next to each other. Jim comes from a broken home and has only his mother to care for him; Will comes from a comfortable home with two parents, but his father (Charles) is much older making him somewhat disconnected from Will.
Together the two boys and the father Charles must protect their hometown from a nightmarish carnival. The carnival arrives with a storm one day in the dead of night as autumn descends on the boys’ quiet town. Suspicious from the beginning, it does not take long for the boys to uncover the driving force behind the dark carnival. Working to overcome their own personal weaknesses the trio tries to stop the carnival’s leader, Mr. Dark who bares a tattoo for each of his victims. (I’ll let you read to find out how they become his victims.)
What makes the story so great is not just the imagination that Bradbury storms up for the plot of the sinister carnival in the quiet American town, but the real emotions generated in the characters. This is part of Bardbury’s genius in that he find fantastic ways of using science fiction, the macabre, and the wickedly unknown to show real human qualities and faults in his characters. His language is uncanny and his ability to build real characters with real life issues in an unreal world is something very special. This is one of my favorite lines from the story:
“You’ll live and get hurt,” she said, in the dark. “But when it’s time, tell me. Say goodbye. Otherwise, I might not let you go. Wouldn’t that be terrible, to just grab ahold?”
And what better names are there for characters than William Halloway and James (Jim) Nightshade?
This book was published in 1962 and was latter adapted into a film that I have mixed feelings for. It is not that it is a bad film, but it is not how I imagined the story in my mind and this is a story that will excite your imagination.
If you have read it please share with me your experience; if you have not read it, please ignore me and read it and enjoy.