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New Who 11.2 The Ghost Monument

I think we can chalk that up as another cracker. I don't have time to write much about it, as I'm going to Romania tomorrow and need to prioritise prepping for that, but a few thoughts.

God, I love stories about a small band of people trapped in an adverse situation. I believe I have mentioned this before - e.g. it's why one of my favourite early Classic Who stories is The Edge of Destruction. They are so good for character development, and just as The Edge of Destruction really helped to seal the main characters for the Hartnell era, so also this was a very good choice of format when we were getting to know a new (and by recent standards unusually large) TARDIS team. There's still more development to go, but we have moved forward with them. I think I still love Graham the most - probably largely because the other two are (sadly!) a bit too young for me to relate to these days. He did something particular which really made me *heart* him part-way through this episode, but I already can't remember what. Feel free to write suggestions as to what I might have like in the comments!

Angstrom's response to his comment that the Stenza had killed his wife - can't remember the exact words but something like "Mine too" - gave us the first explicit moment of queer representation under the new regime. Good - I'm pleased that that is still in place.

That first location they found for the ruins - the crumbling concrete with the green paint - was absolutely spectacular. Judging from the opening credits, it was somewhere in South Africa, which speaks of a commitment to high production values.

The whole thing felt gritty, serious, and sometimes outright scary - and in my book those are good things. Angstrom's references to her world being cleansed, and both her and Epzo's willingness to undergo huge hardship and almost certain death in order to win a better life for their families (in her case at least - I think his motivation was more self-centred), both felt like parallels for the desperation of real-world refugees from war and persecution, and I'm pleased again that the new regime continues to see it as part of Doctor Who's role to raise and explore these issues.

The burnt-edged papery, fabricy, snakey things (according to Wikipedia they were called the Remnants) were quite M.R. Jamesish! And I liked how the set-up for defeating them worked through, from what seemed initially like the Doctor just finding a way to help Ryan find the courage and focus he needed to climb the ladder, to a scientific solution which he had contributed to. Though I'm not sure I fully understand why they didn't just attack everyone straight away, and although I probably didn't catch it fully, I didn't much like the sound of prophetic stuff about a 'Timeless Child' either. That's exactly the sort of thing I was pleased not to be hearing last week. :-/

Finally, the new TARDIS interior genuinely was awesome, and I'm glad I saw that completely unspoiled. Hexagons, circles, an organic crystalline feel, and custard creams to boot! Judging from next week's setting, though, it looks like her time and space calibration is a bit off-kilter. It could take a while before the Doctor can get her chums back to where and when they actually came from. :-)

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New Who 11.1 The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Ooh! That was good, wasn't it? Good enough to make me want to write about it here, anyway, which I haven't managed for the last season-and-a-half.

Jodie Whittaker definitely gives good Doctor. Just the right balance between warm and human and strange without being too mannered. And I liked how the extended episode time allowed plenty of space to develop and introduce all the characters. I'm not sure I was wild about the alien threat, who felt a bit two-dimensional, but then again I get how you need a fairly simple villain when the real business of the episode is introducing a new Doctor and her companions, and I did enjoy the stuff about how he was cheating his way to get power, and what kind of leader did that mean he was going to make? Definitely felt like a broken-state-of-modern-politics reference to me.

I like how the Doctor built her new sonic screwdriver / Swiss army knife out of actual Sheffield steel, and chose her new outfit from a charity shop. And I liked the use of the cranes, too. As someone who regularly drives through Sheffield (on my way between Leeds and Birmingham), they are very much one of the major icons of the city to me. In the run-up to Christmas, they string lights along them. Oh, and the drunk guy mocking the alien dude by saying "Halloween's next month, mate." That felt like a shout-out to all the Goths - and perhaps also a sign that the original plan was to broadcast this episode slightly earlier in the year, as of course Halloween is in fact now later this month.

I could really have done with Grace not dying, partly because she was just awesome and I wanted her on the TARDIS team, and partly because it felt like a rather token, deliberate mechanism for signalling how High the Stakes are in the Doctor's world. But at least, if that was going to be the case, they gave time and space to the consequences of her death, to the extent of showing her funeral - have we ever even had a funeral in Doctor Who before? I can't think of one. Anyway, of the team that's left, I'm pretty sure Graham is going to be my favourite as we go on. He seems very kind and good-hearted, and I just loved his very relatable and human focus on the threats they were facing - like the way he was the one who kept going back to the issue of the DNA bombs, and how long did they have?

It's too early to be sure how this new era will pan out, or what Chris Chibnall has lined up, but I certainly didn't get much sense of any Big Arc being established - I mean, no Crack in Time or Impossible Girl or anything like that. Just the Doctor and some randomly-collected people off for an adventure into space. That actually makes it feel fresher and more exciting than I think all Moffat's Big Arcs generally did, so I hope things stay that way. Here's to a new era.

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Back in April I got a request via a friend who works in the British Library to translate a few words and sentences into Latin for Ben Aaronovitch's latest Rivers of London book (LJ / DW). I knew squat all about the series then, but agreed to the assignment and, with help from a couple of colleagues, supplied the requisite text. A few weeks later, a signed copy of the first novel in the series arrived with thanks from Ben's agent, and now I have read it.

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It's very good, as I know many friends who have been reading them for years are already well aware. The basic premise of the universe is that magic is real, and in Britain was codified and systematised by Isaac Newton in the 1770s. In the present day, a magical institution resides in a building called The Folly on Russell Square, and although it has no official standing or even openly acknowledged existence, in practice the Metropolitan Police work with its enigmatic Master, Thomas Nightingale, on cases involving supernatural beings. We, the readers, are introduced to all of this through the eyes of Peter Grant, the book's main character, a trainee police officer who meets a ghost one night and shortly thereafter finds himself signed up as Nightingale's apprentice. He spends the rest of the novel painstakingly learning basic magic while trying to solve a bizarre string of paranormal murders and intercede between the two major gods (each with a coterie of secondary water-spirits) whom he learns have charge of the Thames - Old Father Thames for the upper, rural stretches and Mama Thames for the lower, urban-coastal ones.

I could probably have taken or left the actual plot, which turned out to be about a sort of revenant possessing people and making them commit violent acts. For all that this was packaged up as a murderous retelling of the story of Punch and Judy, it could have been any old Big Bad really, and it was probably a mistake to take on this, the feud between the river gods and the initial world-building of an opening novel in one go. If the feud between the river gods had somehow underpinned the revenant plot, causing the problem through the disharmony between them, it might have worked better, but I don't think that was the case - although I may have missed something to that effect, as it all got quite complicated and surreal towards the end.

The world-building was good, though, belonging squarely to my favourite genre of fantasy - that is, where magic and the supernatural are real, but still directly connected to the world we actually live in. And of course Ben Aaronovitch being who he is - i.e. a British cult / SF writer whose CV includes Doctor Who - there were plenty of references neatly calculated to make a reader like me go 'squee!'. I believe my favourite was the following, coming as Peter Grant first encounters The Folly:
Russell Square lies a kilometre north of Covent Garden on the other side of the British Museum. According to Nightingale, it was at the heart of a literary and philosophical movement in the early years of the last century, but I remember it because of an old horror movie about cannibals living in the Underground system.
Yes, yes, Bloomsbury Group etc., but more importantly, Death Line! He's talking about Death Line, which is one of my absolute favourite horror films in the history of ever (LJ / DW). There are references to midichlorians and John Polidori, too, but that was the one I enjoyed most.

Peter himself is mixed race, which created some useful space to show up some of the on-going structural flaws with the police. There's one direct reference to the Macpherson report, reminding us that the Met has only fairly recently become an environment Peter can comfortably work in, and in the present day of the novel (its 2011 publication date) he still needs to navigate various micro-aggressions. In much the same way that the characters in Being Human were all very real as well as supernatural Others (the vampire was Irish, the werewolf Jewish and the ghost mixed race), it also reflects his liminal position with one foot each in the ordinary human world and the magical underworld, as well as putting him in the perfect position to mediate credibly between Old Father Thames (who is white) and Mama Thames (who is black).

As a female reader, though, it did irritate me that Peter seemed barely able to look at half of the female characters in the book without appraising them sexually. I mean, maybe that's just an inevitable part of a young male character's internal viewpoint, and it doesn't necessarily mean he can't respect their intelligence or professionalism as well, but it was just so relentless and indiscriminate that it got kind of tedious. I don't really want to have to sit on a character's shoulder watching them objectify every woman they come across - and especially not when that included Mama Thames, a literal goddess. Again, I get that you might want to convey the experience of a goddess' immense power partly in terms of sexual allure, but what we get is Peter narrating how much he wants to put his face between her breasts and gets so hard he finds it difficult to sit down by the time she offers him a chair. Even within the book, she and her coterie laugh at him for the inappropriateness of this, but I'd have preferred not to go there in the first place.

In the end, my own favourite character was Molly, a being of indeterminate nature (when Peter asks Nightingale what she is, he just replies "Indispensable") who lives in the Folly and appears to be its entire domestic staff. She never speaks, Peter catches her at one point eating dripping chunks of raw meat in the middle of the night, and she has a brilliant scene at the end where she comes over for all the world like Sadako out of Ringu and bites him in the neck as a way of sending him backwards through time so that he can defeat the troublesome revenant. But she is a model of efficiency around the Folly, and clearly fiercely loyal to Nightingale and his endeavours.

I will probably read some more of these books in due course, and rather wish I'd done so before I attempted to translate the Latin I was given in the first place. I certainly understand much better now some of the things which puzzled me as I struggled with the initial text, such as why Father Thames seemed also to be called Tiberius Claudius Verica. I'd like to know more about his back-story, as well as Molly's. That said, I've got two entire bookshelves' worth of unread books in my house at the moment, none of which are Rivers of London books, and at my current average rate of no more than ten leisure books per year, it's going to take me a while to get through all those. :-( So it may be some time before I'm back in this particular world.

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26. Maurice (1987), dir. James Ivory

This one I saw a week ago with the lovely [personal profile] glitzfrau at the Hyde Park Picture House, in all its newly-restored 4K glory. I love Forster, and his work always seems to inspire excellence in screen adaptations, but this one has always meant the most to me I think. I saw it first some time in my early teens - I'm not sure exactly when but I would guess aged about 14 - when it was broadcast on Channel 4, and remember sitting up for hours afterwards on top of a chest of drawers which sat in the bay-window of my bedroom, looking out through an open window over the dark, quiet street while summer rain dripped in the trees and climbing plants outside, and wallowing in the feel of it. By then I'd already had multiple powerful crushes on other girls or teachers at school, but I had never before seen anything at that time which presented queer attraction as openly as this, let alone suggested that it could be good and fulfilling or might turn out well. It seems the film has had a similar sort of impact on many people over the years.

I've watched it at least once since, but not for a long time now I think - a good fifteen years, I'd say. But it's always stayed with me, and coming back to it now I am not at all surprised. It's not just the subject-matter, but how incredibly well-crafted the film itself is in every possible respect. Almost every shot in it is absolutely iconic, not a line of the dialogue is wasted, and although the musical soundtrack is beautiful and well-deployed, it also gets so much out of silence - still, high-angle shots of Cambridge, lingering on characters' pained faces, etc. Above all, though, I was struck by how well-structured the whole thing is. It's inherently a film of two halves because of the way it tells the story of Maurice's two successive relationships - one ultimately unhappy, but also leading the way towards the other, where he finds his fulfilment. Actually, in that respect it reminded me very much of the 1963 Cleopatra, with its Julius Caesar half and its Antony half, though Forster laid down that structure for his book long before that film was dreamt of.

But anyway, what that allows, and what Merchant & Ivory really brought out of the book, is an incredible series of resonances, so that almost every scene throughout the film resonates with and calls forwards or backwards to a fellow in the other half. I mean things like Maurice having his boxing gloves with him from the start in Cambridge, to be followed up by his efforts in the East End boxing club later; Maurice climbing in through the window of Clive's room and then Scudder later doing the same to Maurice; Maurice writing to Clive that he gets no sleep and begging him to answer his letters while he's in Greece and Alec later writing exactly the same to Maurice from his boat-house; Maurice saying in the tutorial at the start, when Risley is arguing that words are the only things which matter, that no, it's deeds which matter, and then at the end coming to tell Durham what he has done and being full of joy at Alec's deed of not getting on the boat to Argentina.

A lot of this is there already in Forster, as I established during a hasty skim through the book after I got home, but not all of it. It's very clear that every line, every shot, every moment in the film was incredibly carefully thought through with the eyes of fine craftsmen so that it would convey the maximum amount of meaning - like the water dripping though the ceiling of Clive Durham's house to reflect the rotten sham of his marriage, or the final scene of him carefully and purposefully closing and bolting his windows to the memory of Maurice. Yet it never feels hokey or Oh So Symbolic - there is enough room for the characters to breathe and to be three-dimensional to prevent that.

One interesting choice is that the film is very deliberately and specifically set in the run-up to the First World War through repeated on-screen captions which date each stage in the development of the story so that it finishes some time in 1913. My skim through the novel suggests this did not originate there (though [personal profile] glitzfrau, who somehow read the whole thing that evening, may know better than me). The novel was originally written during 1913 to '14, but it doesn't include any explicit internal dating, and could take place any time in the late Victorian or early Edwardian periods. In fact it's tempting to read the scenes in King's as based on Forster's own undergraduate years - that is 1897 to 1901, when the Provost there was one M. R. James, then at the height of his own Platonic friendship with James McBryde.

Going back to the film, repeatedly reminding the viewer that war is approaching perhaps casts a pall over the happy ending, since it implies that whatever Maurice and Alec may have built will be shattered to pieces in the trenches within a year. (In the book, by contrast, they simply fade into a sort of unseen fantasy-Arcadia.) But I suppose it is an inevitable element of how we now look back to that period, and especially its upper classes. Merchant and Ivory put enough casual snobbery and misogyny into the mouths of both Maurice and Clive to mean it is a world which has to fall.

Meanwhile, the image of Maurice and Clive raptly imbibing Monty's ghost stories isn't the only enticing inter-text to be had from watching the film now. Merchant and Ivory clearly knew what they were about when they casually dropped Helena Bonham-Carter into the audience at the cricket match, for all the world as though Lucy Honeychurch had called by from A Room with a View. But they could not have anticipated that the scenes of Hugh Grant lurking at the back of the court-room while the verdict is read out at Risley's trial would now look quite so much like a young Jeremy Thorpe seeing a vision of his future - right down to the hat he is using to try to hide his face. They did know what they were doing when they cast him, though, as well as everyone else in the film. Very, very well done, Merchant and Ivory. Thank you profoundly for everything you put into this film.

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Obviously I've watched this a few times before. I've done a 'proper' review of it here: LJ / DW, and I also recently read and reviewed the novelisation: LJ / DW. This watch, though, was with my sister during her recent visit. It was a logical follow-on from watching Dracula (1958) with her and her husband last Halloween (LJ / DW), in that this is the next entry in the series, she had never seen it before and I had seen it more than enough times a) to long to know what it might look like to fresh eyes and b) to be quite confident that I wouldn't miss anything crucial because someone was speaking to me during the film. I therefore encouraged her to tell me what she was making of it all as we went along, which she was very happy to do.

Three main things came of this. Firstly, although I think the screenplay does work quite hard to plant the suspicion that the Baroness might be a vampire (she arrives at night, everyone's scared of her, she doesn't eat anything at dinner), this wasn't enough to make my sister actually think she was one. Well before it was made explicit, she correctly surmised that her son was the vampire, and she was protecting / shielding him. I guess the trope of the sick / mad family member in the attic is too well ensconced - although it may also simply be that she knew because she'd already seen David Peel befanged, becloaked and snarling vampirically on the DVD title menu. Once you know he's definitely a vampire, it doesn't really make sense for his mother to be hiding him away if she is also one herself anyway.

Secondly, she remarked that Father Stepnik, the local priest, seemed to know all about vampires when he was telling his flock that the (unnamed) village girl can't be buried in the local churchyard because she is "not like all the rest", but then proceeds to be told all about them in his turn by Van Helsing. I don't think this is a 'plot hole', 'goof' or whatever - just the result of it being quite difficult to convey clearly that a character knows enough about vampires to know what they are but not enough to destroy them, coupled with the fact that Van Helsing needs to be given a lot of dialogue about vampires (and probably more than the specific character of Father Stepnik really needs) in order to establish his authority and inform the audience of the 'rules' for this film. Still an interesting observation, though.

Thirdly, she was really quite surprised when Van Helsing got bitten towards the end of the film, and couldn't guess for a few minutes how on earth the story was going to turn that around. This was the point where I was most grateful for having her fresh eyes on the screen alongside mine, because I have for so long known how he deals with it, and have therefore come to see the bite as nothing much more than the necessary prelude to the real business with the brazier. But of course she's right - we should be shocked when Van Helsing, seemingly humanity's greatest defence against vampirism, falls victim to one, and presumably that's how the original audiences would have reacted. A helpful insight.

Always a pleasure to revisit this, and all the more so in company with my sister. I'll look forward to Prince of Darkness when she next comes to stay!

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24. Vertigo (1958), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Seen a couple of weeks ago with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 at the Hyde Park Picture House. I don't think it needs a hugely long review from me, because it is obviously a very famous and much-analysed film which I really doubt I'll have anything very original to say about. But a few points which particularly struck me:

1. It's in colour! I was honestly quite surprised by this, because I'd just assumed that all Hitchcock films were inherently in black and white, even though I've seen (for example) Rope and The Birds, which aren't, and I had seen stills of this sequence as well:


I guess I just assumed the stills were colourised? Anyway, my real point is how incredibly well the colour is used throughout the film to convey character through signature palettes, create a sense of fear or unease, make sure we notice connections etc. Pretty impressive, if sometimes maybe slightly overdone in the way that many film-makers overdid colour once they had it available to play with.

2. It has two major moments of revelation: one when the audience is shown that Judy Barton doesn't just resemble Madeleine Elster, but had been impersonating her, and one when the nun stands up at the end and says "I heard voices" (I'm deliberately keeping that one a bit vague to avoid spoilers - but you will know what I mean if you've seen it). Learning the nature of Judy and Gavin Elster's conspiracy at least explained how Jimmy Stewart's character had got away with being the Worst Trail Ever in the first part of the film. Of course Madeleine had never 'spotted' him, despite his habit of pulling up very blatantly only a few yards behind her car or staring at her openly in museums, once we understand that she was stringing him along the whole time. As for the final twist with the nun - what a head-fuck! It seems obvious to me that Scottie must jump after Judy just after the credits roll, as there is no way he is psychologically going to survive losing her that way twice. It is only his destiny, really, given the entire theme of the film, to finally surrender himself to that vertigo after all.

3. Jimmy Stewart really is exceptionally good in it, especially when he is in shock after 'Madeleine's' death. His badly-dyed hair is quite distracting, though, and his character is not at all endearing - especially his dismissive treatment of Midge. It is very noticeable that she simply disappears from the film once her plot value (mainly as a sounding-board for Scottie) expires.

I'll probably want to watch it again some time, knowing everything that the audience knows by the end. I suspect it is a better watch that way. But for now, that's it - I'm done.

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I watched this because it is a Hammer film with Christopher Lee in it. Well, I mean and Michael Ripper and Oliver Reed and Marie Devereux (too briefly!) and Andrew Keir and Desmond Llewellyn and a bunch of other favourites - but mainly because of Christopher Lee. It isn't a horror film, though, but rather one of Hammer's swash-buckling adventures, as the title suggests. And for all the pirateyness, it involves the minimum possible amount of screen-time set on board ship, because obviously Hammer couldn't have dreamt of affording that. Rather, they bought in some stock footage for the beginning, built an interior cabin set, commissioned a matte painting of a sea-scape for the end, and set the rest on an island which is very obviously Black Park with a few half-dead palm fronds stuck around the place.

This means that the plot feels more like a Wild West adventure set on the Pitcairn Islands than anything else - although in fact both the islanders and the pirates who come to attack them are French. The islanders consist of a Huguenot colony who have been living in isolation for several generations now, and a fundamental tension has developed amongst them between the strict and traditionally-minded elders of the community and the younger generation who want something different and less oppressive. The analogy here for the real-world contemporary tensions between the pre- and post-war generations is obvious, and there's some interesting stuff about how both sides have their own competing interpretations of what the colony's original founder (old Symeon) stood for. But ultimately this aspect of the story rather peters out, eclipsed by the attack of the pirate gang (led by the lovely Mr. Lee) who come to raid the settlement and abscond with the treasure which they are (rightly) convinced it must be hoarding.

The sexual politics are very typical of Hammer during this period, in that they are playing around with the flouting of traditional values, but ultimately don't quite want to condone their overthrow. Early on, we are invited to sympathise with a young woman (Marie Devereux's character), who is afraid of her brutal husband (one of the traditionally-minded village elders), and has fallen in love instead with one of the young idealists. But ultimately these two cannot be allowed to have a sustained relationship or happy ending, because that would be to condone adultery. Instead, she isn't quite killed directly for her sins, but in trying to escape a crowd of villagers bent on punishment, she runs into a river where she is devoured by piranhas (hence the 'Blood River' of the title). Effectively, then, she is punished by God - or whatever divine agency you might want to imagine.

Christopher Lee is of course absolutely great as the pirate captain, who obviously has enough education and breeding by comparison with his men to convince the same young idealist that he will help him to overthrow the village elders and create a better community, but is in fact utterly ruthless and ready to sacrifice anyone at all in pursuit of the treasure he desires. In other words, it is the perfect Christopher Lee role. He gets a good death scene towards the end, which involves him being pinned to a tree with a sword (though it was obviously cut in the version I saw on Talking Pictures), which along with the piranhas and some sadistic punishments dished out to the young idealist after he has been sent to a prison camp by the village elders would have delivered the sorts of thrills Hammer audiences came to see. It's a pity, though, that Lee was obviously asked to play the captain as having one shrivelled hand. Nothing ever comes of that plot-wise, and indeed I don't think it was ever mentioned in the script, but obviously it's another one for the Evil Cripple file. Similarly, there are a couple of black pirates in his gang, presumably to help convey the exoticism of the settings, but they never get to speak.

The dullest parts of this film for me were the fight sequences, which I am Just Not That Into - especially an extended blindfolded fight sequence between two of the pirates, which just seemed to go on forever to little effect, and was ultimately only over which of them was going to be allowed to rape one of the village women anyway. In fact, this never happened as a rescue party arrived in time, but it gave an already very boring fight an unpleasantly icky edge. It also seemed to me that a lot of the strategies employed by the pirates were downright stupid, such as attacking the village en masse from the front, rather than sending a small party round the side while the villagers were all busy holding off the main attack; or stopping to sleep in the forest after they have seized the treasure and thus allowing the villagers to catch up with them, rather than just ploughing the hell on through the night to reach their ship and escape. But whether this was 'meant' to appear stupid, as a way of characterising the pirates as a not particularly effective force, or was simply the result of insufficiently careful script-writing, I'm not sure.

Anyway, worth watching overall as part of my general long-term exploration of both Hammer's oeuvre and Christopher Lee's, but I would be surprised if I found myself rushing back to watch it again.

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Oops, I've let a bit of a film review back-log accrue again... Let's see what I can do about that this afternoon.

I saw this one with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 at the Hyde Park Picture House. I found it OK, with some good performances, period settings and nice camerawork conveying an appropriately Gothic atmosphere where relevant (as in the Villa Diodati) but without undermining the basic realism of the film. Unfortunately, though, it plays pretty fast and loose with the actual facts of Mary's life - which was part of my complaint about The Happy Prince and Oscar Wilde (LJ / DW). Overall, it didn't irritate me anything like as much as The Happy Prince, because Mary simply wasn't a smug, entitled arse in the way that Oscar Wilde was, and nor was the film quite so intent on portraying her life as a tragic work of art. But it definitely did want to suggest that absolutely everything which happened to her before the publication of Frankenstein was all systematically and almost divinely destined to culminate in the production of that book, which didn't actually leave much space for her agency as a human author rather than a passive cork, tossed on the waves of life.

Here are just a few examples of the departures from reality which I noticed, based on the pre-holiday reading I did for our DracSoc trip to Geneva in 2016, and the exhibitions we saw while we were there (LJ / DW):

Mary meets Percy Shelley while staying with the Baxter family in Scotland, after she has been sent away there by her stepmother.Mary literally missed meeting Shelley for the first time because of this stay, as he came to London while she was away after securing the patronage of her father, William Godwin. They met only after she had returned, during his regular visits to the family home.
Neither Mary nor any of the Godwin household initially know that Percy has a wife and child, and Mary finds this out to her shock when they turn up outside her father's bookshop to ask where he is.All of them already knew all about the wife and child well before Mary became involved with Percy, because he had brought them to the Godwin family home to introduce them to everyone (though Harriet did turn up demanding for Mary and Percy to be kept apart once the relationship had begun).
Mary and Claire first set eyes on Byron at a theatrical demonstration of Galvinism, complete with experiments on frogs' legs.It was actually at a lecture on Milton delivered by Coleridge. Mary's knowledge of Galvinism came later, through conversations at the Villa Diodati.
Percy's friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg sexually assaults Mary in their home, in a move which comes as a complete surprise and (obviously) a shock to her.Percy had suggested to Mary in advance that she and Hogg should sleep together, and although she hated the idea at first, they corresponded about it. In those letters Mary seems interested but wary, but nothing ever came of it in the end.
Byron invites Percy and Mary to stay in his villa in Geneva and welcomes them as soon as they arrive.Claire conceives of the whole notion of tracking him down there and persuades the others to follow. They arrive two weeks before Byron and spend the intervening time in a hotel, waiting for him to turn up.
Mary writes the bulk of Frankenstein in run-down rented rooms in London.She wrote most of it while travelling onwards through Switzerland and into Italy after the Geneva stay.

Many more things are omitted, such as Mary and Claire's other siblings, Shelley bursting into the Godwin family home to propose a suicide pact with Mary as a way of escaping Harriet, and an earlier elopement to the continent by Mary and Percy (taking Claire with them). I am less concerned about omissions, which are necessary to convey a story coherently in the length of the film, but the distortions of reality here actively worked against one of the central claims of the film. On the one hand, it kept trying to show us how her life fed into her work, but on the other it wasn't even presenting her real life, but another fictionalised life which did not in fact lead up to the novel we know.

I could appreciate and give credit for some of what the production team were trying to do in the course of this, such as showing clearly how difficult it was for a woman to be taken seriously as an author in the early 19th century, as well as the brutal and disastrous consequences of the patriarchy generally and Byron and Shelley's notions of free love particularly for women with no access to contraception. But I felt that some other narrative decisions made for serious missed opportunities, and that applied particularly to the real complexities, drama and evident intellectual calibre of her relationship with Shelley, all of which were largely thrown away in favour of a pretty conventional troubled romance story.

In short, I'm glad I saw this (because I was always going to want to) and it's certainly better than The Happy Prince, but it could still have been an awful lot better than it was.

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Electoral Services questionnaire

Interesting. I've just reconfirmed my eligibility to vote in elections in Leeds, prompted by a letter about it which arrived yesterday. I did the actual confirmation online, and after I'd done so a text popped up asking me to fill in a survey on my experiences of the election process in Leeds. Naturally, being geekily interested in these things, I took the opportunity. Most of the questions were, as I expected, on fairly simple / basic things, such as how easy I find postal voting, how regularly I vote, and what experience (if any) I'd had with contacting our local Electoral Services Department. This one, though, really made the electoral reformer in me sit up and pay attention (click if it's too small to read, and you should get the original):

ERS election questionnaire.jpg

I'd already said in a previous answer that I always vote in all elections, so I couldn't say that any of those would make me more likely to vote, but I hardly wanted to anyway. What a dreadful set of options! Thankfully, they offered a box underneath so that I could explain my answers:

ERS election questionnaire answers.jpg

The people administering this questionnaire are Electoral Reform Services, whose business is precisely this - to provide the voting apparatus for surveys and elections. They happen to be partially-owned by the Electoral Reform Society, who know all about STV as their primary purpose is to campaign for it, and indeed share my concerns with online voting and voter ID too - but they won't have had any input into the questions for this. Rather, the questions seem to have come from the Electoral Commission, who are responsible for running and ensuring the fair conduct of public elections in this county, and have here employed Electoral Reform Services to conduct the survey. Since some of the questions referenced types of elections which don't apply in Leeds (e.g. mayoral contests), I assume the same survey is being offered to people confirming their electoral eligibility online all over the country.

Given all that, it worries me a lot to see these questions, as it suggests a very real risk of the methods listed being introduced (or extended, in the case of voter ID which has already been piloted to poor effect) in this country. And yet still no prospect of any actual improvements to our electoral system, such as STV. :-( I only hope they get a lot of responses along the same lines as mine, basically saying "All these ideas are rubbish - STV NOW!"

If you share my concerns and get the chance to fill in this questionnaire yourself, please feel very free to use my answers as inspiration.

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June #bookaday meme

At the end of May, my friend [personal profile] rosamicula posted this image on Facebook for a book meme designed to be played out during the 30 days of June:

Bookaday prompt list.jpg

Although I could see from the image that it had originally been designed as viral advertising for a publisher, and a poke around on Twitter revealed that it was four years old, the prompts instantly sparked lots of thoughts and ideas, so I decided to go for it. With a bit of careful forward planning, I managed to keep it going faithfully on both Twitter and Facebook every day throughout the month, despite the fact that I spent about a third of it away from home (on holiday in Scotland, visiting my family or in Swansea doing external examining), and I felt that it captured quite a faithful cross-section of my academic and personal selves. A little belatedly, and before the posts entirely disappear down the drain of social media, I'm now transposing the results here, so that a few different people can see them and I stand some chance of finding them again in future.

Lots of books under this cutCollapse )

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A coda to the 1940s Universal Mummy sequels I saw recently, and really just a note to say I did, because [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 was quite right - this ain't up to much. Abbott and Costello's slap-stick farce and jokes which depend on implausible misunderstandings just isn't my sense of humour, and here a lot of it is both weak and desperately over-played. The Mummy himself is barely in it, when he is he looks more like he's wearing a boiler suit than bandages, and multiple scenes of characters (usually Costello) oblivious to the fact that he is right behind them rely too heavily on him stopping when they stop, rather than pressing on relentlessly as was the whole point of him in the first place. It's just fundamentally a mistake to put monsters into a film like this and expect them to retain any frisson of real terror or even make any sense at all.

Since I watched it for the sake of seeing how the series ends up, though, I will note that the plot set-up is broadly like the four 1940s sequels, but the Mummy's name has changed from Kharis to Klaris and his princess' from Ananka to Ara. So far, so par for the course - after all, their followers change part-way through the 1940s sequels from the priests of Karnak to the priests of Arkam. The tenuous continuity built up over the sequels has gone, though - we're back in Egypt rather than the USA, and the old back-story about the Mummy being condemned to burial alive for trying to resurrect his princess is long forgotten. There is one weird and probably accidental form of silent continuity, though, in that her burial-place in this film is located in front of (what must be a blown-up back-drop photograph of) the ruins of Karnak. I'm sure it's just because those are some of the first ruins anyone will see when searching through photo archives for pictures of ancient Egypt, but hey - it creates a little in-story nod back to the name of the original priesthood, all the same.

The film does contain an excellent lady villainess (Marie Windsor as Madame Rontru) who is after Princess Ara's treasure, two nice dance sequences (by a troupe which I learn was called Chandra Kaly and his dancers) and a rather random but very good jazz number (Peggy King singing 'You Came A Long Way From St. Louis'). Otherwise, though, it's entirely missable.

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This is one of Hammer's non-horror films, shown recently on the excellent [twitter.com profile] TalkingPicsTV channel. It's a crime drama, and for Hammer was clearly a B-feature: you can tell because it is in black and white, despite them having moved definitively into colour for their horror pictures several years earlier, and according to Wikipedia the total budget for it was £37,000 (contrast £81,000 for Dracula three years earlier). It's an absolute cracker, though, with well-scripted characters masterfully acted by Peter Cushing, André Morell and the like, and a beautifully-paced plot which keeps you guessing right up to the end. I sort of watched it with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, although not quite in the usual way of being present in the same room together. She was in her house and I was in mine, but as we both knew the other was watching it we exchanged texts as we went along, marvelling at the wondrous talents of Mr Cushing and the twists and turns of the plot.

Because of those twists and turns, I'm going to put the rest of this review under a cut, just in case there is anyone out there who might wish to watch it unspoiled. I do heartily recommend doing so if you have the opportunity. But if you've already seen it or don't care about spoilers and do want to know what it's like, click on...Collapse )

All in all, a thoroughly good evening's watch, and a strong reminder that there are still many Hammer gems awaiting me, both within the horror genre and without.

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I should probably impose a personal moratorium on watching, listening to or reading anything to do with Oscar Wilde, because he just makes me irritable and grumpy, and that isn't nice for me or anyone else. I completely understand the importance of his status as a queer icon. That's why he fascinated me in my mid-teens, and I can absolutely understand how important he must be to someone like Rupert Everett (who wrote, directed and starred in this) - a gay man born while homosexuality was still illegal, who has clearly had to negotiate a lot of homophobia throughout his life and career, and who works in the same professional sphere that Wilde also inhabited. But over the years I've found that for me, Wilde's smug arrogance and selfish, manipulative behaviour towards both his wife and many of his friends outweigh the credit that he is undoubtedly also due for defying prejudicial social norms. As the world I live in has changed and stories which once had to be suppressed have been discovered and shared, I've also of course found that plenty of other brave queer people in the past negotiated the same minefields as he did, including in some cases serving the prison sentences, without also being assholes. So I just can't scrape up much sympathy for him these days.

In full fairness, we do see plenty of his ass-hattery in Everett's film. It's nothing like as much of a white-wash as I found Wilde (1997; LJ / DW). But for my taste it did lean too heavily on unsubtle symbolism and syrupy clichés. Examples of the former would include the scenes in Dieppe, where Wilde is pursued through the streets by braying English homophobes to the point where he is cornered and beaten up in a church - but he gets to roar righteous yet dignified condemnation back at them for the twenty-first century audience to cheer at. Or his orgy with Bosie and various local young men in their villa near Naples, complete with an angry local mother who comically doesn't realise it's a gay orgy and begs forgiveness for disturbing them when she realises there are no women there, pointedly cross-cut with Constance and their sons' joyless, pious Christmas. Meanwhile the most syrupy of the syrupy clichés must be the decrepit Wilde telling the story of The Happy Prince to the two orphan boys who have rescued him from a drunken stupor on the streets of Paris, once again cross-cut with scenes of him reading the same story to his own children in happier days.

I pick those three episodes out in particular because as far as I can tell by checking back to Ellmann's biography, there is no record of any beating-up or roared words of defiance in Dieppe (though there were a few social snubs), or of Wilde reading stories to orphaned Parisian boys, while there is positive evidence that Bosie had left Naples well before Christmas in the year when they stayed there. So in other words, these three events aren't in the film because they are part of Wilde's known life history which had to be included. Rather, they have been invented by Everett for this film, and as such show us clearly what kind of figure Everett wants to sculpt Wilde into - tragic, rather mis-guided, but tugging hard on the twenty-first heart-strings and telling a very neat story about homophobia in twenty-foot-high neon letters as he goes. The real problem, though, doesn't actually lie with Everett's inventions. The feeling that everything in the film is narrativised, every scene laden with a conscious symbolic weight which the author is begging us to 'get', comes right from Wilde himself, who appears to have lived almost his entire life to that end. It's annoying enough in Wilde himself, and doubly so when magnified by Everett.

I should say that this film is meticulously researched, beautifully shot and well acted. In many ways it is about as good a film about Wilde's last years as it would be possible to make, and I do think it was quite brave of Everett, whose personal brand has always rested so heavily in his looks, to take on Wilde at his syphilitic end, complete with blotchy face, infected ear and vomit down his front. I am also probably more than unusually irritated by Wilde at the moment due to feeling like he rather hijacked a recent biography I read which was supposed to be about Bram Stoker (LJ / DW). And nor do I really think that stories with a conscious symbolic weight are necessarily a bad thing, though I have written with that implication above. On that, I think that in a story which is not based on real life, and therefore where the audience knows the entire narrative could readily be constructed for the sake of conveying a symbolic point, it's fine and can indeed be excellent; but when a real person is narrativised that way, either by themself or others, it becomes an irritating arrogance, because it amounts to a claim that that person is a work of art. In any case, I am going to try very hard to remember to take this film as my final reminder to steer clear of Oscar Wilde in the future - much as I now do with Stephen Fry for similar reasons. Life's just too short.

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Recently, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 acquired this Universal Mummy movies box-set, so we have been working our way through it.

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We saw the first one, The Mummy (1932) a couple of years ago, and really loved it (reviews here: LJ / DW), but two years is still recent enough that we didn't feel ready to re-watch it yet, so instead we plunged straight into the sequels. The first four of these were churned out in pretty rapid fashion during the early 1940s, and at times it's obvious that they were money-spinners produced as cheaply as possible. Certainly, none of them quite come up to the impressively fresh and intelligent standard of the original. They basically all have the same plot (mummy, brought to life by the latest in a long line of human devotees, murders a couple of secondary characters before carrying off a girl and then being destroyed) and they are rife with racist and colonialist cliches which the first film at least attempted to engage intelligently with (white archaeologists with a scientific understanding of the past vs. cowardly, superstitious and criminal 'natives', as they are literally called). But around that there is a lot of interest to the series, including some of the camerawork, the individual character portrayals and simply the opportunity to watch the genre evolving and its possibilities being explored and extended. They are certainly of interest to the Hammer fan, since it was really the four sequels, rather than the original film, that they used as the basis for their own The Mummy (1959), including the character names and the concepts of a mummy buried alive for trying to revive a dead princess, being reawakened himself by a modern-day disciple, being transferred out of Egypt to a western country and encountering the modern reincarnation of the princess there. More on all of this in the individual reviews below...

14. The Mummy's Hand (1940), dir. Christy CabanneCollapse )

[We watched She Done Him Wrong at the Cottage between these two (LJ / DW), hence the jump from 14 to 16.]

16. The Mummy's Tomb (1942), dir. Harold YoungCollapse )

17. The Mummy's Ghost (1944), dir. Reginald Le BorgCollapse )

18. The Mummy's Curse (1944), dir. Leslie GoodwinsCollapse )

There is one more Universal mummy movie from this (broad) era, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, who has seen it before, says it's terrible and she doesn't want to do so again, and I entirely believe her. However, I've always been a completist, so she's let me borrow the box-set in order to watch that one on my own. I will indeed before long, but I've already watched two other completely unrelated films since, so I will close this review here and put that one up separately when I get to it.

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This book is obviously exceptionally relevant to my interests! The main body works its way through each of the sixteen vampire films made by Hammer from the 1950s to '70s, covering the production process for each one followed by commentary on the story itself, its themes and its cultural resonances. It also sets the Hammer films themselves into the wider context of the evolving vampire genre through opening and closing chapters on screen vampires before and after their heyday, as well as references to related contemporary productions in the main chapters.

The source material is a combination of other published work (contemporary reviews and publicity, more recent books on Hammer, its stars and its productions) and interviews conducted directly by Hallenbeck himself over the years - often for his articles in the occasional horror magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors. Because I spend most of my time reading academic books, I struggled a bit initially with the fact that the publications Hallenbeck had used weren't properly referenced (e.g. via footnotes), but their authors and titles are provided in the text and / or in a bibliography at the back of the book, so I eventually realised that they were all traceable - it's just that actually doing so would require a bit more digging than it might have done. In fact, this book is as well-researched as could reasonably be expected given that it isn't aspiring to academic levels of rigour and support.

I didn't feel I'd got a great deal out of either the opening or the closing chapters, basically because of what they were taking on - giving a bird's-eye overview of a large number of films in a short number of pages. It was never going to be possible to say anything very original about them in that context, so most of it I already knew or could have read on the relevant Wikipedia pages if I didn't. But the main chapters have a lot of interest and detail to offer, even for someone like me coming to them with a very good knowledge of these films already, while Hallenbeck's commentaries on the stories are good at drawing out the themes and dynamics at work within them.

Some points I found particularly interesting follow below:

In re the references to vampirism as a survival of an ancient pagan cult in Brides of Dracula, Hallenbeck says that producer Anthony Hinds 'professed himself to be enamoured' with pagan religion (p. 64). This rings true from the content of several of the films he was involved in, which certainly reflect a prurient thrill around paganism, but it's one of the statements in the book which isn't properly referenced - it might come from an interview in Little Shoppe of Horrors #10/11 which is listed in the bibliography, but that isn't fully clear, and Google isn't bringing up anything much to support it. That's annoying, because I'd like to know more about it.

Hallenbeck cites interviews with both Andree Melly (Gina in Brides, p. 63) and Barbara Shelley (Helen in Prince of Darkness, p. 94) saying that they were explicitly encouraged by Terence Fisher to play up the lesbian connotations of their lines after they have been transformed into vampires (respectively, "Put you arms around me, please - I want to kiss you Marianne" and "You don't need... Charles"). As he points out, Hammer later moved on to entirely explicit lesbian vampirism with The Vampire Lovers (1970), but it's interesting to know that it was consciously and deliberately being slipped past the censors in subtextual form as early as Brides (1960).

Shelley further states (same page) that to prepare for her role as a vampire, and particularly to lend herself the required air of 'evil and decadence', she drew on the days when she 'used to study the old Greek dramas and studied the use of that sort of feeling of the Furies'. Very interesting indeed to see her instinctively turning to classical archetypes there, in a markedly similar way to Bram Stoker, John Polidori and more.

Hallenbeck isn't a big fan of Dracula AD 1972 himself, but he gives it a fair write-up, and I was fascinated to note that this included multiple references to good reviews which came out on its original release. This isn't to say there were also some pretty luke-warm ones, but Variety liked its slick script and fast pace, and Films and Filming thought it had a fresh cast playing against a background of quality (both p. 163). That's interesting, because less fair-minded contemporary commentators tend to foster the impression that it was widely received as an ill-conceived mis-step even on first release (as opposed to dating quickly, which is a different matter), but that obviously isn't entirely true. It was also clear by this point in Hallenbeck's book how much Hammer's real problems in this period stemmed from struggling to get proper promotion and distribution for their films - i.e. if audiences were slipping away, it's partly because they simply didn't know about or couldn't access new releases, rather than necessarily because they hated them (though I realise that if audiences had remained really keen, the distributors would have been sure to cater to them).

He's not a great fan of Vampire Circus (1972) either, the difference there being that this time I agree with him (LJ / DW)! Indeed, he introduces it thus: 'The vampire as child-molester. If that sounds like a distasteful idea, it was only one of the many in Hammer's Vampire Circus...' That's without even mentioning the supposed monster attacking people in the woods which is actually quite clearly a sock-puppet. Hallenbeck's behind-the-scenes details do cast quite a bit of light on why I didn't much enjoy it, though - e.g. I noted in my review that this was director Robert Young's first film, and he was clearly a bit out of his depth, and Hallenbeck fleshes this out by explaining the time-pressures and poor communication from the producer and head office which exacerbated the problem.

Beyond those points, I obviously generally enjoyed revisiting and expanding my knowledge of the Dracula films, and also came away feeling I must (in most cases re-)watch their other non-Dracula films (apart from Vampire Circus and Captain Kronos, both of which I've seen already within the last few years). As luck would have it, the one I want to see most, Kiss of the Vampire, was on the Horror Channel yesterday, so I now have that safely recorded and ready to enjoy in the full light of Hallenbeck's commentary. It's definitely one I'll keep taking down from the shelf as I revisit these films over the years.

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Castling and boozing

These were the other two main things we spent our time on while in Scotland, although I'm sure Bram Stoker would have approved heartily of both. I'll cover them below in the order in which we did them, with cuts to save your scrolling fingers.

We began our holiday in Inverness, from where we visited two local castles. The first was Cawdor, of "All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!" fame, although far from being the sort of blasted ruin those words immediately conjure up, it is actually the very nicely-maintained living seat of the Cawdor family, and since we visited it in brilliant sunshine in early June, my prevailing memories of it will always be of the incredible smells and colours which filled its gardens and the banks of the stream which runs alongside it. It all made me think rather of Lord Summerisle's Castle, with its similarly bountiful gardens, dark wood furniture and armour on the walls, and even had some topiary in the garden which looked awfully like a pair of spread thighs to me. The family's motto, visible on various parts of the castle, is 'Be Mindful', and struck me as a nice example of the Tiffany problem - a perfectly valid early modern motto which now sounds anachronistic thanks to modern hipsterism.

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Floweriness, mottoes and some almost Wicker-Mannish topiary under hereCollapse )

Cawdor was followed by Urquhart, on the shores of Loch Ness, which of course reminded me of another ruthless English-accented aristocrat, Francis Urquhart. He wasn't home, and nor was Nessie, but the castle was a very aesthetically-pleasing ruin which probably looked better for the fact that the skies had clouded over while we journeyed there from Cawdor than it would have done in bright sunshine. I mean, sunshine just isn't very Scottish-castley, is it?

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More lakeside broken battlements under hereCollapse )

Back in Inverness that evening, I took advantage of the opportunity to meet up with local resident celtic_rose, whom I have been LJ friends with for c. 10 years now, but had never met in person. She took me to a local bar called Scotch and Rye, where we had a grand old time chatting away, eating dinner and working our way through their extensive cocktail menu, trying a cocktail each from every one of the first four pages. We decided at 11pm that moving onto page five would probably be a bad idea, although celtic_rose did go back and continue the great work the following evening! We were obviously having such a lovely time together than when we paid at the end of the night, our waitress asked us if we were celebrating anything special. Yes, we replied - meeting IRL for the first time after a decade of online friendship!

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The next day we set off for Cruden Bay, where we started with Slains Castle (as per yesterday's post). After that, our next stop was Dunnottar Castle, which stands on an incredibly-dramatic rocky headland that can only be reached via a narrow spur and a lot of steps.

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Various additional pics under here, including one of four DracSoc members admiring its giant cisternCollapse )

The next morning saw us at possibly the second most exciting castle of the trip after Slains, by virtue of a similar combination of Gothic literary relevance and unkempt, enter-at-your-own risk promise: Gight Castle, the ancestral seat of Lord Byron's family. He never got the chance to own it, because his father gambled the family fortune away and it was seized by creditors, but the best-read member of the Dracula Society told us he would have been conceived there, and I believe her. It isn't really a 'castle' as such - more of a fortified manor-house in a green and pleasant valley, but anyway it was marvellous fun to rummage around, cautiously testing our footing and daring to climb up piles of rubble to the first floor, all again under suitably-grey Scottish skies and with nary another soul besides ourselves in sight. I'm sure Byron himself would be very pleased with how it has all ended up.

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More Romantic ruination under hereCollapse )

Thence onwards to Huntly Castle, whose Earls belonged to the same Clan Gordon of which the Byron family were a branch.

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More details of its decorative stone-work, plus a silly picture of me pretending to be a prisoner taken by NinaCollapse )

Finally, it would be rude to visit Scotland without going to a whisky distillery. We went to Strathisla, which is one of a handful of distilleries claiming to be the oldest in Scotland(!). It is certainly very picturesque anyway, and as a great lover of Scotch whisky I enjoyed learning properly about how it is made. I'll have a better understanding of the vocabulary used to describe it in future - such as knowing that when a whisky is described as 'peaty', this is not because it is made with peaty water (as I had assumed), but because the malted barley is dried out over a peat fire before being ground up to go into the whisky. After our tour of the distillery itself, we were treated to a tasting in a lovely darkened room lined with leather chairs and tables with rows of tasting glasses, which was very pleasant indeed.

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More stills, barrels and DracSoc members in leather chairs hereCollapse )

I thought their 12 year old single malt, just called Strathisla, was fairly pleasant, but I wasn't blown away by it and could take or leave their blends, so did not buy a bottle to take home. However, in the duty-free shop at Aberdeen airport I discovered a bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which I have been in quasi-religious raptures about ever since trying it at one of Alistair Carmichael's whisky tasting sessions at Lib Dem conference in Southport, and which I'd enjoyed a dram or two of in Inverness and Cruden Bay as well. So I coughed up and carted the precious nectar carefully home, where I immediately also ordered a pair of the proper whisky tasting glasses which Alistair uses, and which they'd also given us at the Strathisla distillery. They really do make a big difference to how the aromas reach your nose, and given that the whisky itself cost the best part of £60, I wanted to ensure I was getting the most out of it!

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I had my first little dram last night, and it really is very special. My prevailing experience of it on my first try at Southport was that it tastes of bonfires, and it still does, but there are all sorts of other notes which come out as it oxidises and you add little drops of water - chocolate, musty leather, crème brûlée and something spicy between ginger and cumin. Definitely one to enjoy in moderation, and perhaps especially as the winter nights draw in, but an excellent souvenir to have brought back from my summer holiday.

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Bram Stoker's Cruden Bay

Just over a week ago I went on a five-day holiday to Scotland with DracSoc. As usual, there was a particular Gothic literature-related theme to our trip: in this case, that our main destination, Cruden Bay, was also Bram Stoker's favourite holiday spot, where he spent the month of August at least twelve time from 1893 onwards. But, while we were in the area, we also took the opportunity to visit its best castles and various other local attractions. I'm going to write up the experience in those two parts - first the stuff directly related to Bram Stoker, and then everything else.

Cruden Bay is a tiny fishing village on the east coast of Scotland. According to local Stoker expert Mike Shepherd (on whom more below), Bram discovered it after walking down the coast from holiday accommodation in the larger town of Peterhead, and decided that its quiet character, beautiful beach and coastal walks were more to his taste. Thereafter, it became his regular holiday destination, and importantly for us he stayed there for the first time in 1893 - half-way through the period of 1890-97 when he was slowly writing Dracula. Since he was so busy as Henry Irving's theatre manager throughout the rest of those years, he must have written most of the novel during his summer holidays in Cruden Bay.

The first two years, he stayed in the Kilmarnock Hotel, where we were lucky enough to be able to see his signature in the guest-book from his second visit in 1894:

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After that, he began renting out a local cottage, now called Hilton, which has a garden with views over the surrounding bay. Again according to Mike, his own conversations with the current owners of the cottage, plus interviews which a journalist conducted in the 1960s, both brought up local memories of people regularly seeing Bram seated at a table in the garden writing - which of course would have included him finishing off Dracula during his first couple of years there.

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Obviously, as many DracSoc members as possible stayed in the Kilmarnock Arms, but as they only had a limited number of available rooms, I was amongst a group of five who stayed up the road in the Cruden Bay Bed & Breakfast instead. I had absolutely no complaints about that, though - it was a very comfortable place with a genial host called Ian who enjoyed hearing all about our exploits and regaling us with his anecdotes, and bless him had gone to the trouble to make us feel welcome by decking the place out with vampire-related tat finery and even leaving a copy of Dracula out for us in the reception area in case we needed to refresh our memories!

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Later on in life, Bram obviously came to find Cruden Bay too busy and bustling for his tastes, and instead began staying in a cottage at the even smaller village of Whinnyfold.

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This overlooks a bay with dramatic rock formations, where seals were resting and calling out eerily when we visited. Apparently, it features heavily in one of his later novels, The Mystery of the Sea, which is entirely based in the local area, and features the ghosts of centuries' worth of sailors who have drowned on the rocks emerging from the mist and climbing, zombie-like, up the zig-zag path to the top of the cliffs.

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Between Cruden Bay and Whinnyfold is a beautiful curving golden sand beach, along which Bram used to like to walk, either with his wife Florence, or on his own with one hand behind his back and his head bowed, deep in thought as he worked out the next stages of his latest story.

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Here you can see Mike Shepherd (on the right holding a sheaf of paper) guiding a select handful of DracSoc members along the beach, talking to us about the local landscape, what we know of Bram Stoker's visits there, and the various ways in which it inspired his writing.

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One such feature, at the Cruden Bay end of the beach, is this little cove, known as the Watter's Mou', about which he wrote a short story of the same name.

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Just as we got to this, three deer, who had been startled by a man nearby walking his dog, came bounding past within a few metres of us, over a fence and off across a beautiful big green field of ripening wheat.

The biggest and most Gothic attraction, though, was Slains Castle, which stands on the cliffs just beyond the Watter's Mou' at the north end of the bay, and can be seen from almost anywhere within the village. Today, it is a ruin, having been de-roofed and partially demolished by an owner who no longer wished either to live in or pay taxes on it in the 1920s, but in Bram's day it was a splendid stately home, which he may well have visited. Certainly, it has two particular features which have their counterparts in Dracula's castle, which itself is clearly perfectly habitable with only a few partially-ruined features (the chapel, the battlements) in the novel. One is a tower perched right over a cliff-edge, which I struggled to really capture with my phone camera, but in real life very much lives up to the following description from chapter 3 of Dracula: "The castle is on the very edge of a terrific precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything!"

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The other is an internal octagonal room which may well have been the inspiration for these sentences from chapter 2: "The Count halted, putting down my bags, closed the door, and crossing the room, opened another door, which led into a small octagonal room lit by a single lamp, and seemingly without a window of any sort. Passing through this, he opened another door, and motioned me to enter." Obviously, octagonalness is likewise difficult to capture in a single shot, but anyway this is the room in question - though unlike the Count's equivalent, clearly it did have windows:

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With or without those two features, though, Slains Castle is a very splendid place to explore, offering all the fun of ruination but also a largely-intact structure which means you can get a good look at the architecture underneath the original decorative facade, almost as though the outer finery had been peeled away, and also means that there are lots of enticing spaces to poke noses into and discover. Since it is still privately-owned and not maintained as a tourist attraction by Historic Scotland or the like, there are no health-and-safety features, it's all entirely at your own risk, and indeed a local woman called Jill who is campaigning to get the castle preserved and protected pointed out to us how one doorway lintel had collapsed since her own last visit only two weeks earlier. So, I join her in hoping that the remaining structure will be bought up by the Scottish government, stabilised and made safe for visitors in the near future. But at the same time, in its current state it makes for a wonderful playground to explore, so long as you pay due care and attention, and I'm very glad I got to see it this way.

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This book presents a transcript of and commentary on a journal kept by Bram Stoker between 1871 and 1882, which was left by his wife Florence to their son Noel, and passed down from him to Noel Dobbs, Bram's great-grandson, who lives today on the Isle of Wight. It was clearly more of a commonplace book or writer's notebook than a personal diary of the kind Stoker's characters write in Dracula, and contains 310 entries consisting of ideas he's had, bits of poetry, scenes he's observed in daily life, stories and jokes people have told him etc. Indeed, it's not unlike the sort of stuff people put on social media these days, with one entry in particular which records his inner turmoil after a child has called him ugly striking me as particularly classic LJ / DW fare! Most date from his mid-twenties to early thirties when he was living in Dublin, working for the civil service and writing theatre reviews in the evenings, although a few reflect his transition to London to work for Henry Irving, which happened in 1878.

The editors, Dracula scholar Elizabeth Miller and Bram's great-great-nephew Dacre (whom I went to hear speak last November: LJ / DW), present the entries thematically, under headings such as 'Humour', 'Personal and Domestic', 'The Streets of Dublin', 'Theatre', etc., rather than in the order presented in the original book, which I wasn't sure about at first. But I realised as I read that since this isn't a diary, the entries don't build on each other in any meaningful way, many of them aren't dated and indeed several seem to have been copied into the book from other sources (presumably scraps of paper) some time after they were written, there was no very compelling reason to present them in their original order. Meanwhile, grouping them thematically (but in their original order within that theme) does create some sense of how Bram's life and thinking evolved over time in different areas, and perhaps more importantly allows scope for an editorial introduction to each section contextualising and commenting on the notes. These are substantial (ten or more pages each for nine different sections, as well as an overall introduction and coda), so that they add up to what is almost a biography of Bram during his Dublin years, and indeed supply a lot of the sort of detail which I wanted and was disappointed not to get from David Skal's biography when I read it recently (LJ / DW). As such, I learnt plenty from them and enjoyed doing so.

Bram's actual journal entries are certainly fascinating if you're interested in the evolving thought-processes of the man who would go on to write Dracula. There is a (shortish) section entitled 'En Route to Dracula' which documents the emergence of his Gothic sensibilities, such as a memo to himself to do a dramatic adaptation of Poe's 'Fall of the House of Usher' or a couple of jottings for story ideas which relate to motifs later used in Dracula. But they are interesting for general social history too, as a record of the life and thoughts of a middle-class Victorian Dubliner. We learn quite a lot about his social life, work life and the general comings-and-goings of contemporary Dublin, which of course include quite a lot of obvious deprivation and inequality. Indeed, precisely because he was an aspiring writer, honing his skills as an observer of human life and capturing scenes and interactions which he found in some way striking or poignant, he is probably a better-than-average witness to his surroundings. I will confess that I only skim-read most of his sentimental and generally-mediocre poetry, and didn't always find the jokes and anecdotes he wrote down particularly funny, but in general I found him genial company, and am glad to have absorbed a slightly more rounded picture of him - not to mention a couple of little insights into his knowledge of the ancient world which will be useful for my Classical references in Dracula paper.

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I saw this at the Cottage Road cinema last week with the lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313. As it is only 66 minutes long, and the Cottage Road crew like to make a proper night out of their classic screenings, it was preceded by the 45-minute comedy short A Home of Your Own (1964), dir. Jay Lewis, which is about the various happenings and antics on a building site as a new housing development is being built. It doesn't have any dialogue as such, although characters do sigh, mutter, tut, etc., so the focus is all on slap-stick and visual gags such as somebody walking straight across a bed of concrete which another guy has just finished smoothing out, but it was lots of fun and we enjoyed seeing it. Also very good for spotting lots of people you recognise from more famous contexts, like Ronnie Barker, Richard Briers, Peter Butterworth (of Carry On fame) and Bernard Cribbins.

After a short intermission complete with ice-cream tray, it was time for the main feature: one of Mae West's earliest screen roles, adapted from a Broadway play which she had written herself. Obviously Mae West is amazing, and nothing much I say could do justice to that, or cast any additional light on her awesomeness, so we will take it as read. But an evening of her wicked drawl, sassy lines and slinky frocks is certainly a delight. Indeed, in addition to her own no-nonsense, sexually-liberated, self-directed central character, Lou, the story features multiple well-defined women and offers up plenty of scenes of just them speaking to one another, which definitely makes it stand out from amongst the standard fare of the day. One of them is a black woman, who although in a typically-subservient role as Lou's maid does get plenty of her own dialogue and actively contributes to Lou's various schemes and machinations. Wikipedia tells me that this character was specifically and deliberately brought on board by West as a way of seeking to combat racism in the entertainment industry, which reflects well on her.

It's a gritty dog-eat-dog world that Lou inhabits, with at least one absolutely psychotic former lover in jail and dodgy deals going on all around her, and she is certainly no angel. One plot-line sees her colluding in having a girl who came into the bar where she works as a singer to attempt suicide shipped off into what we're presumably supposed to understand is prostitution on the Barbary Coast. But the overall thrust of the piece is that men constantly do women wrong, like this girl who has been strung along by a man whom she didn't know was married, and that it is about damn time women got their own back. There is so much double-dealing and so many personal rivalries that I found the plot a bit confusing at the end because I couldn't remember what everyone's agenda was. But anyway, it all ends up happily for Lou, who gets the one man who might make an honest woman out of her, and indeed for the girl who had attempted suicide, as she has the whole ring of traffickers busted and arrested. A fantastic evening and I hope not the last of Mae West's films I'll get the chance to see on the big screen.

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Taped off [twitter.com profile] TalkingPicsTV a million years ago and watched last weekend for light entertainment. This was the first serious attempt by a production company other than Hammer to capitalise on the success they had had with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958). Indeed, they hired Jimmy Sangster, who had written both, to do the script, which makes it of interest straight away, and that's before you factor in Barbara Shelley, who had also already been in a couple of Hammer films and is just wonderful anyway.

Despite the 'Vampire' of the title, the film is more Frankenstein than Dracula. The chief villain, Dr. Callistratus, runs a lunatic asylum and conducts experiments relating to blood types and the artificial preservation of life on patients strapped to beds in a dungeon room beneath a laboratory with tubes full of bubbling coloured liquids. We eventually learn that local people accused him of being a 'vampire' because of his blood experiments and staked him through the heart, but he survived thanks to some kind of culture which he had introduced into his own body (it got very hand-wavey here). Although his hunch-backed servant, Carl, bribed a drunken doctor to resurrect him by performing a heart transplant, the culture has left him with an incurable condition in which his own blood is destroying itself - so he needs constant blood transfusions to survive. In other words, we're more or less at the exact mid-point between the lightly pseudo-scientific vampirism of Hammer's Dracula and the fantastical science of their Frankenstein. Callistratus himself looks more like a corpulent Lugosi than either Lee or any Frankenstein I can think of, though, and indeed the hunch-backed Carl too reflects an ongoing debt to the Universal movies of the '30s and '40s.

It's not exactly a brilliant film, but it's better than the very low expectations I had for it. Most of the performances are competent, if sometimes a bit hammy, there is a modicum of reflection on corrupt justice and the ethics of medical science, and there's a nice sense of tension and peril building up to the climax. Certainly, Barbara Shelley does her job well as a rather nervous young woman who is nevertheless determined to rescue her fiancé from injustice even if that means facing danger herself, and some of her frocks were absolutely fabulous. It's a pity that Talking Pictures' rather shonky print meant I couldn't see them as well as I would have liked to, but then again the same shonkiness probably helped to hide a lot of sins in the cheap sets department. Nonetheless, I did notice that the people who made this ('Artistes Alliance' / Tempean Films) clearly had quite a lot more studio space available than Hammer, as some shots really made a point of showing off large interior spaces.

On the very much down side, Shelley's character is subjected to an icky attempted rape by a corrupt official - a motif which seems to have been thrown into films of this genre and period all too often for the sake of cheap titillation with no real plot value. Other offenders are Captain Clegg, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and Blood on Satan's Claw - and that's just off the top of my head. The one that I'll allow is Witchfinder General, where I think it does serve a purpose in conveying the general brutality of the circumstances, and in making Richard's commitment to marrying and protecting Sarah afterwards a more potent reflection of his love for her.

Meanwhile, I was fascinated to note that Callistratus' servant Carl develops an affection for Shelley's character (Madeleine) which motivates him to prevent her rape and then help her and her fiancé (John) escape the prison, all because he has earlier seen her image in a locket taken from John by the guards. This reminded me straight away of Klove helping Sarah and Simon in Scars of Dracula because he has similarly seen her picture long before, and in turn made me wonder where the trope actually originates - here? Or in another common source? It sort of relates to Dracula being taken with Lucy's image and then tracking her down to claim him for his own in Hammer's film of the same year, which of course gives us a link through Jimmy Sangster as the script writer - but a villain deciding he will have a girl he's seen in a picture isn't quite the same as a servant rebelling against his master to save a girl he's seen in a picture, and it's the latter I'm really interested in. If anyone knows more about where the trope originates, let me know! Certainly, it would be truly sad if by the time of Scars Hammer had sunk so low as to have ripped this motif off directly from this, a second-rate rip-off of their own films...

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