Archive | June, 2015

GOTHIC EVERGREEN

27 Jun

         

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THE RECYCLING OF A GENRE

   Shakespeare never wrote a truer word when he penned sonnet fifty nine and proclaimed, If there be nothing new, but that which is…Hath been before, how our brains are beguiled.”  In layman’s terms the Bard was indicating that there is nothing new under the sun. Although it wasn’t a literary genre that he was waxing lyrical about, it could very well have been the subject of his musings. The Gothic has been in fashion since the later part of the eighteenth century when Walpole produced the now moss covered milestone of the “Castle of Otranto.” Since then literature has been wall-papered with the tropes of Gothic to the point that one can barely watch or read anything without some facsimile of the style being inherent to the plot; dark, brooding locations populated by mysterious beings, intent on causing mischief or at least satiating a habitual blood lust. Gothic has become so engrained in modern society that it can be found in many other artistic mediums including music, fashion, art and is no longer confined to literature. One may hazard that the attraction of the style is grounded in the easily recognizable genre tropes that are appreciated ostensibly by a symbol minded audience.

            Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Stoker’s “Dracula” haven’t been out of print since they were first published in the nineteenth century and still feature among the most enduring and cherished stories. Modern versions of these same tales – although contemporarily bearing only a passing resemblance to the originals – still hold true albeit with tenuous provenance. Likewise the medium of the modern film has succumbed to this retroactive, hair-raising over-spray and has taken it a step further. By utilizing historical characters, whether literary or human, it has not only recycled but has embellished and breathed new life into them with all things Gothic. Time-worn tales that have been told and retold ad nauseam have been resurrected thanks to the supplementation of genre allusion. The addition of appropriate styling has enabled film makers to recreate in much the same way that the medieval writers were able to reimagine the ancient classics without fear of obvious repetition. Gothic trope has become an adornment with which to repackage and stylize older works in order to achieve box office success. In particular one is reminded of Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and that most elusive of villains Jack the Ripper.

            The visual medium of film is an ideal showcase to exhibit those traditional tropes of Gothic literature that are so conventional to the reader. Although imagination is a powerful tool the addition of quality illumination, professional cosmetology and a score and that would make an exorcist quail, are not without their place. It’s the Gothic that’s chorus to so many great films and undoubtedly one of the reasons for their continued success. Lightning strikes and thunder crashes; the orchestra strikes up an ominous note and immediately popcorn is forgotten and sugared drinks neglected. The visualization of the unheimlich is a powerful draw and those oligarchs of movie magic recognize its financially beneficial veneer when they assiduously apply it to celluloid. Ominous location, other worldly situations, dark and brooding moments, strange characters and the inevitable parataxis that wrong foots an audience are all part of the well-fingered apparatus of cinematic satisfaction. This doesn’t only apply to the film but also to the carefully crafted siren-song of the movie posters which predict the dark delights of the as yet unseen; supplying the necessary element of uncanny to excite willing flesh and pliable minds. Brilliantly rendered images that paint the imagination before coin has been exchanged for a tooth-to-nail thrill that’s guaranteed to suffuse the blood and raise the hackles. In the dulcet tones of that over familiar announcer whom we’re all acquainted with, “We’ll give you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”

            Sherlock Holmes has been a part of the popular conscious since his inception in 1887 when he first appeared in “A Study in Scarlet.” Under Conan Doyle’s’ penmanship, the consulting detective went on to appear in four novels and fifty six short stories, a literary phenomenon whose extraordinary analyzing mind was the key to the character’s success. The stories where quintessentially Victorian with a modern, somewhat removed character able, by the process of deduction and his intimate knowledge of the new scientific methods, to apprehend criminals in spectacular fashion. Although representative of the period and an obvious foil to Victorian society he was never a true Gothic character, although the original inception did create a template for future adaptations. Given the popularity of the genre during the period it was written, trope exclusion would have been contrary to public appeal and so one can recognize the inclusive elements of isolation, mystery, ominous setting and high emotion. Despite being replete with Gothic codifiers, Holmes didn’t become a true Gothic character until the B.B.C. television series featuring Jeremy Brett in the 1980’s. Although many earlier cinematic and television versions were originally filmed in black and white – due to contemporary technology – this later series was deliberately filmed with vague sepia coloration that induced a deliberate sense of the unheimlich; invariably using a smog ridden city scape to enhance the atmospherics of suspense and pending doom. Consequently instead of being an accessible, although eccentric human being, Holmes was cloaked in mystery, associated with the black arts and prone to violent mood swings. The director John Hawkesworth was fond of discordant scenes and used parataxis to enhance the sense of frustration, urgency and rapid thought patterns that to the viewer where bewildering to the point of discomfort. The addition of the Gothic to completely restyle a rather flat character, whose major attributes were a quick mind, a faithful companion and a deerstalker, didn’t happen however, until director Guy Ritchie reimagined Homes in 2009. With a combination of steam punk culture and overt gothic representation the character of Sherlock Holmes was completely reborn.

            To date Ritchie has made two films both of which are steeped in Gothic imagery and allusion. Holmes is a complete man of mystery who hides form the world and who although possessed of incredible cerebral gifts has a side to him that could be described as sociopathic. Not unlike Conrad’s “Kurtz” Ritchie has alienated the figure of Holmes so that the reputation of the man is greater than the hero himself.  Isolated in 221b Baker Street he is surrounded by the ephemera of empire and foreign travel and the debris that clutters each scene is a distraction and also a precursor to the inexplicable that occurs in subsequent falling action. Ritchie’s cinema craft is so rich that one doesn’t know where to look as each object, situation or new character distracts to the degree that there is an omniscient feeling of anxiety of haste and a burgeoning sensation of the necessity for breathless flight. Holmes, rather than in London, is constantly portrayed in hostile landscapes where he is pursued by mysterious frantic figures. Attacked by adversaries who simply materialize from nowhere and with the inexplicable threat of Moriarty, Ritchie’s ability to confound and surprise are aided by the technical brilliance of camera angle and scene setting to enhance viewer sensation. This looming sense of prophetic evil is not dissimilar to the “Nellie” steaming up the Congo; shrouded in mist and surrounded by impassable jungle where at any minute absolutely anything could happen.  It is this kineticism of pending action that continually keeps an audience on its toes. The brooding atmosphere one associates with Victorian Gothic is consistent throughout his films via the medium of lighting, wardrobe and score. Ritchie is the master of metonymy where atmospherics, billowing steam and the ever present Thames fog proscribe the cinematic shorthand for impending doom and danger. The film is rich in doppelgangers, caricatured by the ability of Holmes to manipulate disguises using the “modern” technique of camouflage and period theatre craft. An obvious bumbling stooge to juxtapose the brilliance of the detective in the figure of Watson – as created by Conan-Doyle – is reversed by Ritchie who uses the character to foil Holmes’ innate ineptitude at life. The inclusion of femme fatales, arch villains and irrational momentary characterization rip the novel from the flat page and thrust it into the technicolored, moviescaped brilliance that it becomes in the hands of its director.

            Even though the legend of Jack the Ripper has grown from the true events of a nineteenth century serial killer, it is still an exquisite representation of contemporary horror. Given that the events took place during latter years of the Victorian period – the location of his crimes and the dark brooding city-scaped images of a man stalking fallen women with a surgeon’s knife – his adaptation to the Gothic is an easy transition to make. The story of those historic events has appeared in every genre of literature since and can even be found in science fiction; an episode of “Star-Trek” included a character representative of the murderer.  Unfortunately as with most early cinematic portrayals – and indeed one only has to go back to the eighties to experience the profundity of poor film craft and inadequate technology – the saturation of inept story telling tended to jade enthusiasm. The disassociation from film as medium of profit to that of an art form was necessary, along with the availability of 21st century technical ability, to bring a tired and worn tale back from the dead. Since the inherent details of the crimes were quintessentially Gothic it’s little wonder that an art-house production of the story was released. Once again the overt application of the Gothic literary genre was used to reanimate an already familiar topic.

            “From Hell” was released in 2001 by the Hughes Brothers and centers on a troubled clairvoyant police detective tasked to investigate the murders of Jack the Ripper. Immediately we have the introduction of the uncanny and the unheimlich with a man who can allegedly predict the crimes of others through his opium induced dreams. The inspector is a disparate figure set apart from society by class, ability and personal appetites and although considered by the constabulary to be a maverick, is none the less recognized as one with great ability. Shades again of the “Kurtz” figure of whom similar qualities were attributed. The inspector operates in the smog enveloped urban jungle of White Chapel where street walkers and drunks populate the far margins of society of whom little or no attention is paid. Our hero finds himself in a strange land struggling to survive despite the machinations of diabolical –although human – forces. The inspector has to reconcile duty with the dangerous aspirations of an impenetrable monarchy supported by the unseen hand of the obscure illuminati who attempt to confound him at every turn. Although fear and foreboding are used to great extent along with the most gorgeous use of the cinematic craft, it is the psychological aspect that drives the action. The director deliberately uses darkness and shadow, accompanied by unusual camera angles, to sustain a claustrophobic atmosphere necessary when portraying the Gothic.  Although we want the inspector to succeed we know that because his character is flawed and the forces he is up against are so powerful that his likelihood of success is minimal. Associated with the portents of his visions are the inevitable females in distress; prostitutes who for some unexplained  reason are slated to be murdered by the Ripper at the express desire of the shadowy hand that is truly behind the crimes. Many of the other trope codifiers are utilized including an indefatigable partner, inexplicable events and – interestingly – allusions to other Gothic writers including Edgar Allen Poe. “From Hell” has transformed itself from the traditional murder investigation story into a psychological battle between the forces of darkness and light.

            Gothic trope as is obvious from the two examples given has become an adornment with which to repackage and stylize older works in order to achieve box office success. The addition of appropriate Gothic codifiers has enabled film makers to recreate familiar stories in a new vane and thrill audiences with opulent representations of the Gothic style. The genre which has become so beloved as is apparent by its longevity and chronic metamorphoses has been translated with considerable skill from page to screen. Whether rain or knife slashed the appropriate settings of isolation, decrepitude and desperation – all inherently necessary to the Gothic – find a home in the modern cinema.

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JEKYLL and HYDE

17 Jun

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GOTHIC FANTASY or THOUGHT CRIME?

The duality and multiplicity of the Victorian era is implied in the reflectionism of Stevenson’s text. This includes the rise and fall of empire, the adoption of empirical science, the ascension of the middle class and the advent of the modern era; the list goes on and on. Consequently to try to coerce the figure of Mr. Hyde into any one of these positions would not be difficult. Likewise the idea of Lombroso’s anthropomorphism can be applied to the British attitude towards subjugated nations, gender roles  and class differences; the beerage as oppose to the peerage, as they were laughingly known by the blue bloods. Similarly the new Victorian sciences of phrenology, psychology and evolutionary theory could also help to explain from a contemporary perspective what it is that we think Stevenson’s novel is trying to tell us. I am not persuaded by any of these as I do not believe that this is analogous to the period nor a Gothic tale but that it’s a fantasy instead. Stevenson is renowned for other fantastical and adventurous works including “Treasure Island” and more in line with this particular story “The Bottle Imp,” and consequently “Jekyll and Hyde” is a work of pure escapism. Of course it embodies the tropes of Gothic literature but what modern story of suspense and mystery doesn’t?

Rather than discovering untold wealth in a “Rider-Haggard” novel or the perpetual youth of “Dorian Gray” we’re granted license to live out our wildest fantasies with impunity. Given the darker side of human nature and the masks we choose to wear in public, how many of us haven’t wished to push the boundaries of acceptable behavior and escape the bondage of social conformity. This is also a Romantic notion and something to which Blake alluded to in the “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Whether it’s the demise of one whom we despise, or robbing the local bank without fear of retribution what wouldn’t we do? This I believe is the true underlying message of Stevenson’s writing and is supported in the lack of specificity regarding the debauchery enjoyed by Hyde. Yes, we’re told of the trampled child and the murder but everything else is left to our imaginations. When Jekyll freely admits that he has done those things which go beyond the pale and which are inadmissible in a polite society, what goes through the readers mind? What is it that we as individuals desire but would never hope to get caught doing? This creates reader intimacy as – although we live the tale as written – we envision the acts personally and so embellish Hyde with our own true natures.

In the immortal lyrics of Billy Joel:

Well we all have a face that we hide away forever

And we take them out and show ourselves when everyone has gone.

Some are satin some are steel, some are silk and some are leather.

They’re the faces of the stranger,

But we love to try them on.

The nature of pseudo-science – just as in “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” – is again explored. Despite what was fast becoming a mechanical society – where everything operated within the bounds of natural constraints – there was still an irresistible urge to scrutinize the inexplicable. The old ways of the alchemists still adhere – hardly surprising as modern science had only existed for about a hundred years- and therefore there is a continuous attraction towards the fantastic. Written in 1886 “Jekyll and Hide” is only ten years younger than “The Time Machine” of H.G. Wells. It would seem that the progression of modernity is simply allowing for the fulfillment of ancient enlightenment if only between the pages of the novel.

THE MARX OF EMPIRE – DRACULA

14 Jun

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Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” opens on the heath with the three wicked sisters and the immortal line “something wicked this ways comes.” Stoker borrows the idea in his portrayal of the three voluptuous women at Castle Dracula and without direct allusion allows his readers to conclude the same. Arata suggests that something indeed is arriving and instead of a Scottish King with a crisis of ambition it’s the end of empire and the dilution of the British soul. This ignorant implication is not only one that was incorrectly applied to the Victorian period but is a contemporary fear attributed to British tabloid xenophobia as an alleged consequence of membership of the European Union: modern federalization which will enable a huge influx of Eastern Europeans into Britain. Scaremongering politicians allege – as Arata does – that open border policy – alluded to in Arata’s treatise on Dracula  – has created a contemporary Transylvanian exodus of alleged millions that mirrors to some degree Stoker’s one man on a boat scenario in Whitby Harbor, accompanied by several tons of earth. This is of course without merit.

     The idea that the British are a pure bred race has always been anathema and is generally a foreign misperception that although Britain is an island – a sceptered isle – it’s somehow the source of some original seed. One only has to look at the history of Britain to understand that the concept of a melting pot, which America so readily adopts for itself, applies equally to the British. After centuries of invasions by Saxons, Danes, Goths, Romans, Normans and not forgetting the Scots – Celts – who famously, unlike their Irish neighbors who prayed on their knees, preyed on their neighbors. Political and social turmoil throughout the centuries has seen countless inundations of refugees to its shores; in particular during the reformation of the Church in the sixteenth century with the usurpation of Protestantism over the hearts and minds of the islanders and the juxtaposition of Catholicism on the Continent. Britain has always been about place not race where within a generation those who have chosen to come to the country adopt its attitudes and language and as multicultural as the country is – even during the period Stoker was writing- there is a unity that tethers the country more efficiently than genetic glue. One only has to observe the names and faces of the England football squad to understand that Britain is not about being a white protestant born within the sound of Bow Bells. To make this analogy a Victorian one, Arata conveniently forgets that Victoria herself was born of Germans and therefore of German lineage who spoke German, who married a German and who was the head of the Saxy- Coburgs. What Arata also neglects is the link between the European Royal families and their lineage that descends from the Romanian. He, not unlike Professor Mellor, cherry picks his causation and wrongly applies his defense.

Britain was not a country filled with racial tensions as he suggests and fearful of alien exsanguination, as for century upon century and principally because of Empire, the nation had become adjusted to the idea of the foreign – other – and the benefits the Empire brought with it, rather than a fear of foreign inundation. There are countless examples of, rather than wishing to travel to England, those countries that fell under Empire wished to emulate the practices of the British and apply those in their own countries. The empire didn’t encourage immigration however, it did promote Britishness and all that it entailed

To suggest, “Stoker thus transforms the materials of the vampire myth, making them bear the weight of the culture’s fears over its declining status,” is asinine. Famously Daniel Defoe wrote ‘The True Born Englishman” in 1701 which completely mocks the notion of racial purity and therefore Arata’s misinformed contention. This satirical poem was written to defend the coronation of a Dutch King and to defend the House of Orange “against xenophobic attacks and to ridicule the notion of English racial purity.” Defoe writes:

“A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,

In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.

A banter made to be a test of fools,

Which those that use it justly ridicules.

A metaphor invented to express

A man a-kin to all the universe.”

     Arata claims that Stoker’s writing – especially Dracula – is central to the concept of reverse colonization and sites his various works to justify his argument. Is this really true or are we reading the novel with 21st century sensibilities and applying the principals of political correctness or rather social compartmentalization? How can one possibly decry the foreign entity of Dracula and yet accept the foreignness of Van Helsing a Dutchman and his extremely enunciated accent. Is this a case of Dutch good and Romanian bad; can we possibly distinguish between separate and distinct nationalities?  What of the American and his state of the art Winchester rifles and his indelicate slang? Again is would seem obtuse to welcome one without the other. What is more apparent throughout the novel is the difference in class as oppose to difference in race, a concept that Americans seem to find hard to understand. In a nut shell, if one is not born to a certain lineage then one will never belong. In Dracula the foreigner is exulted whilst the lower classes and indigenous populations are ridiculed.

     The great homogenizer in Britain is not money but blood. This given the Count’s penchant for that most sanguine of beverages would have been a better argument; that Dracula by drinking the blood of mortals is diluting class boundaries and destroying aristocratic hegemony. One only has to read the descriptions of the ordinary folk to understand how Stoker considers his few central characters to be of better breeding than the masses and therefore worthy of fawning respect. This is particularly apparent towards the end of the novel with the search for the coffins and the pursuit of Dracula back to Romania when we meet working class people who are continuously – to the point of overt repetition – derided for their physical status, the nature of their lowly employment and their barely comprehensible accents. According to Stoker, they’re always thirsty and in need of alcohol and easily won over with money; the commodity they the proletariat, despite the fact that they are the workers, don’t possess. Stoker stridently elevates the hegemonic principals of class distinction as even Dracula is praised as coming from an ancient family; a “distinguished” man who just happens to live in a castle. Despite his debauchery he is still one of them.  One could argue that revolution which once again was rearing its head – especially in the East – was a serious concern to the ancient dynastic families who because of their blood line alone held the delicate balance of power in Europe and therefore, the reason why sanctity of blood is so important to the central theme of “Dracula.”

     Money and race play no part in aristocracy nor do they affect ancient lineage. One must therefore conclude that “Dracula” isn’t about the destruction of empire and the influx of the foreign, but the dangers presented to the tenuous nature of centrally held power by dilution and the fear of the inevitable demise of false class consciousness.

DRACULA – Modernism and “New Woman”

12 Jun

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The “Norton” edition fails to address the plight of working class women for whom the transition to an industrialized – instead of an agrarian – economy was singularly the greatest impetus towards women’s rights. Women were very often employed in the new factories in preference to men as they were cheaper, compliant and easier to control with the economically beneficial addition of their children who were considered free labor. For the first time in the modern era, women had become principal earners and seen to be able to work alongside men or even in place of them. The so called “New Woman”in the earlier part of the century would have been a rarity indeed, given her societal subjugation and lack of access to higher education however, with the advent of the new century things were changing rapidly; women were schooled, allowed to divorce and in many cases granted the right to own property and were no longer considered the chattel of their husbands. To white-wash the entire Victorian period as a repressive society towards the feminine would therefore be disingenuous. The eighteen hundreds were a march of progression not only in industrialization and Capitalist economics but also in sexual parity.

Stoker’s women – in particular Mina and Lucy – have been androgenized and one has to question the author’s motivation? Why it is that Mina’s is the principal diary; why are we allowed to see into the minds of Stoker’s women and why are they given such broad sexual license? The principal action through much of the novel is either conducted by or associated with Mina. Why does Stoker personify a principal character as a woman when the Norton edition would have us believe they were so downtrodden and that Victorian Patriarchy was allegedly so afraid of the rise of woman? Given the period that “Dracula” was written Britain stood at the dawn of a new century with the rejection of Romanticism and the advent of Modernism. Clearly new cultural perceptions were beginning to appear – as is evident both in the poetry and literature of the later nineteenth century – and rather than viewing the suppression of women we should perhaps be receptive to their awakening during a century where women began to achieve their first vestiges of equality. Stoker from his descriptions and subjugation of the expected feminine stereotype is clearly demonstrating an enlightenment and broadness of mind that obviously wasn’t his alone. Given that “Dracula” is a novel of its period, we are perhaps misreading an enlightenment novel that had already made the switch from sexual division to the incorporation of the female and its reclassification as equal. We have to also consider the men in the novel and see how ridiculous they become when they interact with women. In all things they are committed to action and honor and societal obligation and yet when a woman is suddenly in the picture they are emasculated and revert to becoming children, blubbering simpletons or love struck buffoons. Stoker is demonstrating extremes of character, where we can clearly see that the sexes are able to perform a duality of roles and that the masculine and feminine are interchangeable. Clearly, as “Dracula” demonstrates, those traits traditionally associated with one sex no longer, at the dawn of the twentieth century, hold true.

The three vampires adopt male roles and rather than supplicant actively seek what can only be described as sexual congress with Harker. This is a no holds barred description of women as sexual aggressors. We also see the awakening of the dominant in Mina as well, who decides, despite the fact that she is “merely a woman,” to visit her sick husband and take control of his affairs. It’s thanks to her foresight and ability to work with the latest technology – the typewriter – that she is able to order man’s affairs and throw light on what had been a confusion of facts. Lucy who holds the fate of men in her hands with her several proposals is even able to dazzle and distract her suitors in death! Not only that but she also destroys that most sacred sacrament of the feminine – motherhood – when she feeds off children in her undead state. Rather than a giver of life the feminine is cast in the masculine role as a taker of life. Throughout the novel it is either the women who hold the reigns or who are given license to do so by the men who, in their company, are mere walking shadows – poor players perhaps – of what society expects them to be. This transition within sexual power play politics is undoubtedly reflective of the period in which it was written and self evident of the onset of Modernism.

Initial “Dental” Impressions; Dracula

12 Jun

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Dracula doesn’t just fit the Gothic genre but embodies the entire theme. Every trope available to the Gothic author is apparent within its first few chapters; a naïve young man journeys to a strange country at night in a darkened stagecoach to meet with an aristocrat who is feared and shunned by the local population and who just happens to live in a ruined castle in a darkened forest, filled with wolves and who is randomly disturbed by itinerant gypsies whilst trying to grab forty winks in his own crypt. (Did I mention that he sleeps in a coffin filled with the earth of his homeland, consorts with the undead and is petrified of crucifixes?) If it wasn’t for the fact that this story is an original, one could be forgiven for pulling the cliché card. The beauty of the story lies in the authentic imagination of its author who has not only captured the mood of the Gothic narrative but embellished it. Stoker has stolen the Gothic football and not only run with it but kicked it through the dilapidated twin towers – bat ridden and ivy enveloped of course – explaining the enduring popularity of the novel and the fact that it reads as contemporary.

Naturally, because we’ve been spoilt with production after production of “Dracula,” it’s hard to form an original image in one’s mind as continually – at least in my own imagination – I see a pale skinned man dressed in a high collared cloak with exaggerated widows-peaks. The only thing remiss is the Eastern European lilt of, “I vant to suck your blood!” Because one cannot escape the modern appeal of the story one has to try to appreciate the novel as a genre archetype and in doing so admire its obvious quality and recognize the immediate differences from those we’ve read thus far. To date we’ve read of the abusive, the ghostly, the uncanny and the unthinkable however, Dracula refreshingly embodies true horror.

There are several instances of pure genius that erupt from the pages. The first is the disembodiment of Dracula into a cloud of particulates; something with which we are now overly familiar with in Hollywood productions; the seemingly solid individual who suddenly disappears in a puff of smoke only to re materialize from thin air. This imagery is sublime and I believe without having experienced this via the medium of film I would still have been taken aback – as it did stun me when I first read it – as the description was so immediately recognizable. The image of Dracula crawling – as the author goes to great pains to describe – down the perpendicular wall of the castle. This is not only unheimlich but also super natural. Dracula isn’t just a bad seed he also possesses super-human powers – the first Romanian super hero perhaps? The shock at the lack of reflection in the looking glass and the over eager excitement generated by Harker’s blood are also vivid in description and although familiar are none the less remarkable from the point of view of the Victorian Fantastic.

Rather than romance as we experienced in “Frankenstein” and “Wuthering Heights” there is an undisguised sexuality that permeates the story; in particular, the three voluptuous and overtly sexualized women we initially meet at the castle. The poignant kissing scene when Harker chooses to sleep outside of his bed chamber could very easily be construed as something quite different. This theme of sex is constant throughout the novel and there are manifest portrayals of female lust. Stoker attempts to show us through the letters and diaries of Mina and Lucy exactly what women really want. More traditionally the women are continuously objectified by the admiration and wooing of their male counterparts from whom Lucy has a hard time choosing and who wishes, quite scandalously, that a woman should be able to marry more than just one. Disturbingly the beauty of the corpse is not free, even in death, from the licentiousness of the living as it grows page by page more ample and zaftig to the point of unhealthy admiration by those who view the body. Clearly sex sells and “Dracula” as well as archetypally Gothic incorporates many of the tropes of a bodice-ripper as well

WUTHERING HEIGHTS – “ELEMENTARY GOTHIC MY DEAR WATSON”

6 Jun

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“When the sublime is impossible Watson, then only the Gothic is possible”

      Bronte’s novel is everything one would expect from a Victorian Gothic; a third party fireside tail related by a servant who can only reveal that which she believes to be true. This lends the story a mythical quality as the falling action is merely perceived truth, as we never truly see into the minds of the protagonists. Set in a bleak Yorkshire landscape an ancient house, that dates back centuries, is battered by the elements on a wind riven, snow gusted promontory, arousing both the sinister and melancholy. Small enclosed windows allude to ominous shadowed interiors shielded by a stalwart stone construction that has allowed the house to endure the passing of countless seasons. Wuthering Heights is no castle but with a maze of wooden stair cases, dark hallways and locked rooms it is a foreboding location. The atmospherics are enhanced by a room, in which nobody is allowed to sleep, that conceals long forgotten books containing clues to the families strange and dramatic past. To compound the horror and suspense there is the foreshadowing of names penciled into a window frame. From the outset the reader is acquainted with a supernatural dread and an expectation that worse is to follow. This suspicion is confirmed by the appearance of the ghost at the window and perhaps more disturbing, the figure of Heathcliff barging through the door “with candle wax dripping off his fingers” who then pulls open the casement windows to scream insanely at the tempest raging outside. One might be forgiven, that rather than a sedentary Northern English farm house, that one had entered a lunatic asylum. From the uncanny and mysterious, to the downright diabolical, the novel contains it all; including obligatory, incomprehensible yokels. Bronte brilliantly achieves an element of the unheimlich; the ghost at the crossroads, the hanging dog, the sounds of horse’s hooves and unseen riders escaping into the night all margin the immediate and thrill the reader. Could anything be more Gothic? 

         We join Lockwood in what should be a familiar domestic setting but instead find ourselves in an alien and uncanny environment; the novel immediately sets the reader ill at ease. The assumptions made by Lockwood regarding the interfamily relationships presented to him are all incorrect and so, like him, we stare around a room at a group of characters of whom we know absolutely nothing. The rapid confusion of shared and similar names adds to the initial disorientation of both the reader and unwanted guest. Who is who, and why on earth would Lockwood decide that he needed to revisit a house that was initially so inhospitable to strangers? Bronte places her reader at a deliberate disadvantage so that from the outset they are back-footed, causing them to suspect the worst of what is obviously a dysfunctional situation and search for the natural yet nonexistent clues in an attempt to comprehend what is clearly incomprehensible. This oppressive if dynamic suspense is neither welcoming nor does it encourage one to read further and yet, the introductory intrigue is so dense that one is forced to plough through the chapters at a blistering rate in an effort to garner clarity. “Wuthering Heights” is a novel which at every twist and turn reveals or rather conceals yet another hidden truth. Just as Lockwood is eager to hear the fire-side gossip of Nelly Dean, the reader too is on tenterhooks to discover whatever truth she may reveal.

        Thrushcross Park and marriage to its owner gives Cathy the ability to save the man she herself cannot save; a manifestation of true love where one lover cares more for their partner than they do for themselves. Cathy surrenders her own feelings for the benefit of Heathcliff – by marrying Linton a man she doesn’t really care for and who is the antithesis of the childhood friend – who’s been brutally crushed by Earnshaw to the point where only the memory of her erstwhile companion is left. Despite the financial benefits of her union with Edgar she’s optimistic that her elevated position will rescue Heathcliff from his untenable existence. Recognizing that they’re kindred spirits, she realizes that they can never be together as due to the lack of care and education at Wuthering Heights – enjoyed whilst favored by Earnshaw senior – Heathcliff is doomed to a life ignominy and misfortune. It’s only upon his escape and return to the moors that she begins to question her own position.

       Selfish regret and egotistical revenge exhibited by both protagonists late in the novel lend clarity to the true natures of Cathy and Heathcliff. Cathy clearly on a path to self-enrichment has finally bitten off more than she can chew and despite her avarice discovers that her fatal flaw is her love for the Byronic hero Heathcliff. Unfulfilled by material acquisition the objects of her desire – be they physical or emotional – always seems to inflict distress on those supposedly closest to her. After barely a thought to Heathcliff – except the terse explanation that he is now beneath her thanks to his neglected education – her few weeks at Thrushcross awaken her inner narcissist and after sampling the good life abandons everything she allegedly holds dear in order to maintain it. No longer the wild, care-free, moor-roaming child she’s quixotically content to enjoy the confines and luxuries of the grange. Rather than a portrayal of a capricious child we are offered the mind of a devious anti-heroine who doesn’t give a damn about anybody else except herself. Her explication on the notion that marrying Heathcliff would degrade her speaks volumes and yet she is frivolous with her Husband’s affections in her continued correspondence with him. Cathy cares about one thing and that’s Cathy. If anything she mirrors Heathcliff more in later life than she did in her youth as she contends her “lovers” one against the other. Cathy has nothing to lose and everything to gain from their rivalry. Should Heathcliff have killed Linton then Thrushcross would have been hers. Her husband prevailing on the other hand changed nothing. It was only the unforeseen effects of weak constitution coupled with pregnancy and exacerbated by her hysteria that eventually killed her. This mirroring is seen in the Heathcliff’s marriage to Isabella whose only design is to put him one step closer to owning Thrushcross and destroying those – as he’d already done at Wuthering Heights – he considered to have done him ill. One could almost believe that the love they purportedly share for one another is secondary to their ulterior desires. Theirs is a dysfunctional attraction which ultimately destroys the lives of those around them as well as their own.

      The sentiment of nature versus nurture was a key question in Frankenstein: whether or not the creature was truly terrible or made so by circumstance. This applies equally to the Heathcliff character who for all intents was an innocent – foundling child – who receiving the love of old Earnshaw thrived and when abused by Hindley became the black-hearted villain and seminal destructive force in Wuthering Heights. The notion of “other” is ubiquitous as reactions to him despite his physical differences were dependent upon those who both loved and hated him. Instead of analyzing the notion of “other” in Heathcliff, perhaps we should consider the discrepancies in his nurturing. Was it “other” that made him different or the perception of him – as either a blessing or a threat – by those with whom he interacted? Heathcliff is a product of the limited society he enjoyed and therefore judging him a villain by his degree of “otherness” would be mendacious.

      Alternatively one could debate the notion of free will and that by choosing to follow the path he did, is responsible for his own actions. In the vein of Eastern spiritualism one has to experience the darkness in order to appreciate the light. The idea that the consciousness grows form each experience clearly does not appear to apply to Heathcliff and therefore one has to conclude that his lack of humanity is innate. Attempting to perceive Heathcliff as a victim and therefore forgive his indiscretions is disingenuous of the consummate villain that he is.

DIE HARD – A VICTORIAN GHOST STORY

5 Jun

EDDY

           

Thunder cracked and lightning forked in the night sky as an incessant rain beat a diabolical tattoo off the leaded glass of Ye Olde Sheep Stealers Inn. Fog swirled among the gas lamps and, drifting slowly up from the river, muffled the cacophony and obscured the nocturnal iridescence of heavy industry; the occasional crash of the new iron-age, chorus to the rare abatements in the tempest raging overhead. The cobbles were awash and slick underfoot; the biting cold of December evident from the huddled, shrouded figures scurrying home to the warmth of hearth fires; the promise of brief respite from arduous factory shifts in decrepit tenements; the spasmodic covenant perhaps of pressed flesh.

            The Sheep Stealer was an ancient coaching inn that had stood sentinel since time immemorial. The auberge was replete with a rich and colorful history and the patrons that passed through its nail-studded doors never failed to be impressed by the tales of roundheads and cavaliers who’d plotted and planned around it wooden tables; of the highwaymen who’d escaped the hangman’s rope through its upstairs casements and of the great plot to kill King James when Guido Fawkes himself had spent a restless night underneath its dilapidated slate roof. Although a neighborhood landmark it wasn’t long for the modern world as with the new municipal transport system being ploughed through London there was little hope for its survival. In its place would come the necessary ephemera of tunnels and termini that would usher in the new age, transforming the ancient city of London into a Victorian Babylon. The modern era was expeditiously replacing all that had been familiar and in a world of a change, a beacon of nostalgia was a welcome sight to the weary traveler.

            The pot man looked up from his duties as the door swung upon. The candles guttered and the flames in the grate roared as the night air rushed into to fill the room. “Shut the bloody door before we all freeze damn you!” challenged the bar keep at the silhouette that had suddenly appeared from out of the night.

            A fire blazed in the hearth and the smell of roasting meat filled the ale house; spurious shadow creatures and shapes diabolical danced on the flaking plaster walls. The stranger rubbed his hands and gasped at the welcome warmth already beginning to drive out the aching cold that’d permeated his bones. Throwing the cloak from his shoulder and removing his hat he revealed the scarlet jacket of a soldier, the white piping that clutched at his collar and cuffs an odd contrast to the martial figure and saber slashed face that made its way to the bar.

            “A room and some food,” said the soldier throwing gold onto the counter, “and a pot of ale to wash it down with.” The innkeeper eyed the sovereign, nodded and, wiping his hands on his greasy apron, pulled a pewter mug from the rack above his head and proceeded to fill it. The soldier quickly drained it and it was immediately replaced with another.

             “Your food’ll be out in a little while Captain. Why don’t you take the weight off and go and sit by the fire and warm yourself? I’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”

            Two, worn high backed chairs stood in front of the hearth and as the soldier approached he noticed skeins of smoke rising above the leather head rest. As he came closer he saw that it was occupied by another man. Undaunted by the company he sat down.

            “Come far ‘ave you?” asked the stranger.

            “Far enough,” he replied noncommittally.

            The stranger stared at the soldier’s uniforms his eyes drinking in his insignia and the regimental crests on his silver buttons. “The 69th  Regiment of Foot. I was with them in Belgium at Quatre Bras back in ‘15. Bloody mess that was. Not many of us made it out of there.”

            The soldier looked up at his companion, disbelieving yet curious. “Who was your Colonel?” There were enough confidence men and tricksters on the streets and with a silver tongue and a few war stories it was easy to illicit money from drunken redcoats and so the pretense of having served the colors was an easy scam to pull.

             “McDonald . Colonel Jock McDonald. You ‘eard of him?”

            The soldier started. Who hadn’t?  Black Jock McDonald was a man of myth and legend and tales of the death-dealing mayhem he’d wrought on the Frogs that June afternoon were still told by the men of regiment. “Garn! Get out of it you old codger. You was with Black Jock?

             “Aye lad. Side by side in that field of burning corn outside of Waterloo. Shoulder to shoulder we stood, brothers to the end. Steeped in the blood of our comrades and the enemy alike we was.” The old man stared at nothing in particular and pulled on his clay pipe, the escaping smoke from his nostrils lending him an unearthly aspect as the light from the fire played upon his ancient face.

            The soldier put the tankard to his lips and drank in the rich warm taste of bitter beer, smacked his lips and contemplated the old man. Quatre Bras had been the most destructive day in the history of the regiment where nearly two hundred men had found their deaths in the space of an hour at the hands of the French. Despite the enormous body count the regimental colors had been saved and with the late arrival of the Prussians the French had eventually been repelled. June 17th 1815 was a symbol of regimental pride; a day of bloody infamy that lived on in the tales told by the new recruits and old sweats alike.

            “Quatre Bras,” mused the old man, “I remembers it like it was yesterday.” With that his eyes glazed over and he began to relate the events of that fateful summer day forty years ago.

*

            Bugles sounded and whistles shrilled as the sergeants berated the men into line abreast. The companies broke out of their columns and shook themselves into single file.

            “Move your arses.”

            “What you waiting for Jones, a bloody invitation?”

            “Look alive. The Frogs are over the hill.”

            Both the King’s and the Regimental silks whipped over their heads as the infantrymen efficiently came into line attack and proceeded to walk across the field. With bayonets fixed and muskets held at waist height they advanced to where they presumed the enemy was entrenched. Suddenly, out of nowhere, swarms of French cavalrymen appeared on their flanks. The leading scouts saw them immerge from the dead ground, screamed their alarm and, fearful of being caught in the open, sprinted back to the safety of the main body of soldiery. The French seizing the element of surprise spurred their horses, lowered their swords and, sensing victory, galloped towards the vulnerable open ranks of the British.

 

*

            “They was them armored Frogs with the blue uniforms and steel breast plates. Cuirassiers; heavy cavalry,” explained the old man. “Big men with faces full of moustache on monstrous ‘orses.” The old man became agitated, his face twitching, his hands shaking as he told his tale. “Evil bastards with long, wicked swords. Well, we was done for. Only defense against cavalry is square and we were stretched out from one ‘orizon to the next. We didn’t stand a bleeding chance.”

*

            The French crashed into the British line and turning like mackerel – their swords flashing and falling in air – swooped down on men who, although they didn’t know it yet, were already dead. Men screamed as blood drenched sabers thrust and plunged, the horses trampling the corpses and finishing the work of the men on their backs. The blood lusted cavalrymen yelled their challenges and stabbed and slashed as the madness of combat engulfed them rendering them automatons of death. The British could do nothing. Soldiers turned to face their enemy and holding up their arms in a pathetic attempt to ward of the attackers, fell to the ground; their life blood draining into a foreign soil that would be forever England.

*

            “Easy pickings we was for them Frogs. Riding field days ‘round us they were. Hundreds of the ‘orrible bastards grinning and screaming as they skewered man after man. It was McDonald who rallied us. Centre Company and the color platoon managed to square up we did, grounded our muskets and presented Sheffield‘s finest to the enemy. With our bayonets creating a steel hedge the nags wouldn’t come close and we began to fight back; shooting the riders down like ducks as they rode about us.”

             The soldier had heard the story a thousand times before but now, told by someone who’d actually fought the engagement, it took on a whole new life. He could hear the shouts and screams, taste the gun powder from the muskets and through the fog of war hear the cries and prayers of both the living and dying.

             The old man’s eyes clouded as he went on. “It was numbers game and seeings ‘ow there was more of them than there was of us we weren’t going to last long. Slowly but surely they wore us down till there were less than thirty men stood ‘round the colors. McDonald stood next to me in the front rank screaming like a bleeding banshee for the boys to hold, “Die hard 69th. Die hard.”

             The old man’s face grimaced as he remembered. “There was no chance for a man alone and the only ‘ope we had of getting off that field alive, at the rate Frogs was picking us off, was to stick together or stay until the last man fell. Any rate we was down to our last balls and if it hadn’t been for the arrival of the Prussians and old Black Jock we’d still be on that field. Say what you want about the Teutonics but on that particular day I was never gladder to see anybody.” The old man grinned and nodded. The soldier smiled back recognizing a brother in arms, one who’d endured and who’d been a part of a thin red line of heroes protecting king and country.

            The soldier lifted his tankard in salute, “Die hard 69th! Beer?”

            The old man smiled, “Aye lad I will.”

            The soldier got up and went to the bar keep. “Two ales.”

            “Two?”

            “Aye. One for me and the General over there,” he said pointing to his companion sitting by the fire.

            The bar keeper looked at him and then looked towards the fire. “You ‘aving a laugh soldier.”

            The soldier grimaced clenched his fist and brought it down hard on the wooden bar. It was bad enough that soldiering was a profession that commanded little respect, but to be disrespected to your face by some loathsome toad of a civilian went beyond the pale. “Two, he growled, “and shift your arse.”

            The man behind the counter stared at the soldier. “Think you’ve ‘ad enough lad. There aint nobody ‘ere but me an’ you, in fact there’s been nobody ‘ere all night what with this blasted weather.”

            The soldier looked back towards the two empty seats by the fire. Smoke curled in the air; the only indication that anyone, or anything, had ever been there at all.