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Starburst magazine ran a film festival in late August 2016, which I went to with friends and wrote up on my 'starburstff' tag (LJ / DW). It was badly advertised and organised, but actually the films, the guests and the friends I went with were all great, so we had a brilliant time - something I particularly needed back then, as it was still less than two months after my Mum had died. They attempted to put another one on about a year later, but I guess got even lower take-up than the previous year, so that it ended up being cancelled. This time, though, they hit upon the cunning ruse of giving away the tickets for free, which of course meant people snapped them up and it went ahead this time. (Clearly their business model does not really depend on box-office takings.) Andrew, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy and I went along and enjoyed a mixture of brand new and vintage films and the delights of the local food outlets, while periodically boggling out of the windows at the snow swirling upwards between the towers which make up most of Manchester's Media City area, and wondering nervously how we were going to get home. Thankfully, all trams and trains were running smoothly today in spite of the weather, which is more than I can say for Friday when I travelled over. So I'm now safe and warm on the sofa, and able to write up what I saw:

6. The Gatehouse (2016), dir. Martin Gooch

This is basically the story of a ten-year-old girl called Eternity who likes digging in the woods. Eternity is the kind of girl who, when she digs up what looks like an eighteenth-century lady's pistol buried in a tin box, steals a book on guns from the library by stuffing it under her coat (but does give the girl on the desk a cheese sandwich on the way out), finds out what she needs to restore it to working order, talks her Dad into taking her to the hardware store and tells the man working there that it's none of his business when he queries what on earth she wants all this stuff for anyway. And not only is she the central character, but the motifs and logic of the story are those of an imaginative, strong-minded ten-year-old girl too, involving magical stones, a horned god roving the woods turning people into trees, a secret chamber under her house, people who appear to have been shot dead turning out to be fine after all (possibly the blood that looked like jam really was jam?), and her playing a central role in helping the horned god to sort everything out. In fact, it’s a lot like the sort of story my six-year-old niece Eloise tells me when we play with her story-cubes. And while a film matching that description could be dreadful, this one really wasn’t, because all of the characters were so believably written and played (very much including Scarlett Rayner as Eternity, in what I see was her first film role), the horned god was shot just on the right side of obliquely enough to keep him mysterious and stop him looking too much like a guy in a suit, and actually the whole thing was very impressively framed and edited and shot, making very good use of some nice British countryside.

The trailer is a bit misleading, because both Eternity and her Dad are troubled by post-traumatic bad dreams following the death of her mother (in a highly-implausible boating accident which also comes across like the kind of story dreamt up by a ten-year-old), and a lot of the soft shocks which the trailer chooses to foreground are actually those dreams rather than the ‘real’ (insofar as it tries to be anything of the sort) main story. Meanwhile, it entirely misses delights like local teenagers Poppy and Daisy’s drunken walk home from the pub, Poppy's folk-Gothic Lithuanian-accented tarot-reading friend, or Eternity’s Dad teaching her to call up (imaginary) Roman legionaries to help see off the school bullies. Actually the Romans were bumping about quite a lot in this story, not only as Eternity’s personal bodyguard but also as the people who supposedly first built a structure on the site of the gatehouse which she and her Dad now live in. For a moment at the end, Eternity called up her imaginary legionaries to protect her against the horned god, and it looked like we might actually get a stand-off between the might of ancient Rome and the spirits of the British woodlands, which I would have been very interested in. It was not to be, but a great film nevertheless, and in my view the best of the new productions I saw during the festival.

7. Black Site (2018), dir. Tom Paton

The festival schedule had a different film by the same director lined up in this slot, but as the editing on this one had just been completed this week, he decided to treat us to a test screening of the new piece instead. I was a little bit sad about this, as the scheduled film (Redwood) was about vampires in the woods, but then again this one was very solid and it's always exciting to see something absolutely brand new which hasn't reached the general public yet - so I didn't mind too much in the end.

Black Site draws on Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, but the format of the film is 'trapped in an enclosed space with something bad', as per (for example) The Thing or (as [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya pointed out) Die Hard. The enclosed space in question is the Artemis complex, an underground military facility used to deport Elder Gods who have returned in weakened form to our universe (I think - I'm not sure I fully followed that bit). Once they have been tracked down by field agents and ‘bound’ into human bodies, they are brought to the Artemis complex for deportation back to hell - a complex process which requires a deportation agent to recite a text which he has memorised. Most of the time, though, it’s a quiet place run on a skeleton staff, which only comes into action when a deportation candidate is brought in. As as result, it's not as secure or well-maintained as it should be, so between that and the complexity of the deportation process, there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong.

Our main character is Ren Reid, who saw her parents killed by the Elder God Erebus as a child, and is now working at the Artemis complex, desperately trying to qualify as a field agent and get out of there, but constantly failing her psych test because of ongoing trauma from her childhood experience. Then one day Erebus himself is brought in for deportation, along with the deportation agent (a rather clueless public-school type) and closely pursued by a group of cultists who want Erebus back so that they can carry on drinking the blood of the succession of human vessels they had been trapping him in before the field agents bust in and took him from them. Chaos ensures, and most of the film then consists of Ren fighting her way through the cultists while protecting the clueless deportation agent, so that she can get him to Erebus at the centre of the complex and complete the deportation.

It was a well-paced, well-crafted story making excellent use of a well-chosen location. I particularly enjoyed the confrontation with Erebus at the end, which proved not to be fighty at all (as he was held safely captive behind an Electronic Light Field - ELF, geddit?), but instead focused on dialogue in which he told the humans just how insignificant they appeared from his out-of-time perspective, and eventually revealed that he had set the whole thing up from the beginning because he wanted to be deported anyway in order to be reunited with his love, Nyx, deported 20 years earlier. (So it was only the cultists getting in the way of the Artemis complex's normal procedures after all.) I am a real sucker for supernatural beings whose power is such that they are simultaneously dangerous to humans and yet also possessed of insight and perspective we can only dream of (it's a lot of what I also like about vampires), so this ticked my boxes in a big way - and all the more so for tagging it onto real-world ancient Greek mythology.

It was also good on female representation. Besides Ren, it also features two other well-defined female characters who are far from constrained by gender roles - her savvy, hard-headed boss and the samurai-trained leader of the cultists. A conversation between Ren and the boss about her career prospects secures a Bechel pass, while we all enjoyed a trope-aware scene at the end in which the deportation agent tried to suggest to Ren that as the 'hero' of the hour, he should get the girl, and she snorted and told him it was never going to happen. It didn't do so well on race, though. It gave Ren a black friend / mentor, but of the four main good human characters (along with Ren, her boss and the deportation agent), he was the only one not to survive the film, and the way this played out was definitely tropey - heroically trying to protect others and then entirely focused on motivating Ren to carry on as he dies. We were also under-whelmed by the American accents which the actually mainly British cast had been asked to adopt. On the whole, though, jolly good and a worthy follow-up to The Gatehouse.

8. The House of Screaming Death (2017), dir. Alex Bourne, Troy Dennison, Rebecca Harris-Smith, David Hastings and Kaushy Patel

This, by contrast, was just terrible! It was meant to be an homage to the great British horror films of the 1950s-'70s, and had adopted in particular the Amicus speciality of the portmanteau format. The framing narrative consisted of Ian McNeice, sitting down to tell an audience whom at first we couldn't see some stories from the bloody history of 'Bray Manor'. You'd think you couldn't go too far wrong with something that had Ian McNeice in it, and the trailer had conveyed a generally promising impression. It's also worth saying that the films of Hammer, Amicus, Tigon and the like were all low-budget and contain much which is rough around the edges. What they do offer, though, is decent acting, characters, stories, period settings, direction and dialogue - which this did not.

Would you, for example, enter the pub in a village where you are staying, and, on the back of having been (rather improbably) told earlier by the local priest that several local people had disappeared about a year ago, announce at the top of your voice to the entire assembled company, without any preludes or introductions, that you wished to express your sympathies for their recent losses? No? Well, a character in this film did. He also turned up in the village without a hat, stood at the bar in shirt-sleeves with no cuff-links, said 'OK' and ran past visibly-modern radiators, even though it was all supposed to be set in 1888. Meanwhile, another story featured a character explaining how she had once murdered someone using a stake from a fence in the process of construction while we saw a flash-back of the action, except that in the flash-back she was very clearly wielding a garden fork, not a fence-stake. Plus all of them relied heavily on scenes of people standing still and delivering exposition to one another, while we had got a good twenty minutes into the film before a single woman spoke.

At the very end the framing story offered the chance to excuse the utterly inept period detailing at least, since it turned out that all of the main characters from the stories were gathered together in one time and place as the audience listening to Ian McNeice's narration, after which he proceeded to murder them all. So maybe they had never 'really' inhabited the various time-periods when their stories were supposed to be set at all, and were actually just the modern victims of a modern serial-killer. But that is to cut the film a lot of generosity for something which it gave no convincing sign of having thought through in advance, and I personally didn't have any such generosity left to give after everything we'd sat through for the previous two hours. Not actually the worst film I've ever seen, but very, very disappointing.

9. Tremors (1990), dir. Ron Underwood

Our final two films were oldies, so I won't bother with plot précis. I've only seen Tremors the once before, on TV when baby-sitting around the age of 15 or so. I wasn't expecting much from it, but I remember getting sucked into its silly fun at the time, and can very much see why now. For what is essentially a wild west film (but with worms instead of armed bandits), it's not bad for diversity either. Finn Carter as the geologist, Rhonda, has a purpose and agency of her own, isn’t overtly sexualised, contributes plenty of good ideas throughout and indeed is seen by the two main male cowboy characters as an authoritative source of information. Sure, Kevin Bacon's character does ‘win’ her at the end (in exactly the trope parodied in Black Site), but there's a knowingness about it even here in the way he doesn't do it in self-assured alpha-male fashion, but is clearly pretty nervous and has to be chivvied along by his friend. In the racial diversity stakes, we have a Chinese store owner who dies, but a Mexican character survives, and like everyone else in the cast gets to make his own contribution to the rescue effort by having the idea to set a tractor running to distract the worms, and the bravery and physical skills to do it. All in all, it's one of those films which actually just ends up reminding you how little progress we've generally made on diversity in film almost thirty years later (for all that the past few years have served up some stand-out exceptions). Probably my favourite moment of this viewing was sitting next to [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya, who is a palaeontologist, when Rhonda observed that there are no fossils of anything like the worms threatening the town, and that therefore they must 'pre-date the fossil record'. She head-desked. I also kept thinking Kevin Bacon would end up riding one of the worms, but I guess I was getting that mixed up with Dune. His cliff-face grand finale defeat was great anyway.

10. Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), dir. Ed Wood

Another very special genre classic, which I last saw a little more recently that Tremors, but only by about three or four years. As [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya observed, you've had one hell of a film-watching day when (thanks to The House of Screaming Death), this is definitively not the worst film you've seen. But of course the reason everyone loves it is the surreal charm of its particular form of ineptness, underpinned by a sort of cheerful exuberance which somehow carries you along for the ride. We howled with laughter throughout, in a fond and appreciative way. My only real disappointment is how little Vampira really gets to do in it, and I'm now keen to watch some of the other films which Maila Nurmi played in her Vampira persona, so that I can enjoy more of her obvious excellence.

With that, we called it a day, and [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy headed off for a terrifying white-out drive along the M62, while Andrew, [twitter.com profile] Extinction65mya and I merely walked across the square for dinner at Prezzo. Here's hoping we're all back in Manchester before long for more from the Starburst crew - but ideally without the snow!

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I went to see this with big_daz on Wednesday night at the Everyman, Leeds. It's the second new release I've seen in the cinema this year, which is already more than I manage some years in total. If there were more films like this to go and see, that would be very different.

It is framed in multiple ways as a fairy tale. One is the two bookended voice-over sequences which begin by describing the main character, Elisa, as a princess and end by talking about her happy ending. They turn out to be voiced by her neighbour, who has spent his life painting advertising posters but is quickly being made obsolete by the camera, who keeps his television permanently tuned to old black-and-white musicals and comedies, and who ponders whether he was born too early or too late. That is, we are being told a story by a man disconnected from reality whose job is to sell fantasies. Elisa herself we first meet fast asleep on her couch, sunk deep into a watery dream-world, while throughout the film sound and light from the cinema over which she lives leak up into her apartment, and at one point she herself breaks out into a black-and-white song-and-dance routine to voice the love for the creature which she cannot speak. Perhaps some time in the decade before 1962 (the film's dramatic date) she has sat downstairs watching Creature from the Black Lagoon, absorbed its soundtrack in her sleep, and been living it in her dreams ever since? Later on, she returns the favour, sending the watery by-products of her own fantasy romance dripping onto customers nodding off in the auditorium below when she floods her bathroom to turn it into an aquatic playground. In fact, between her voicelessness and the fact that she was both found by water as a baby and ultimately finds her happiness there, she may as well be the Little Mermaid, on land only ever temporarily while she finds her prince.

All these markers of fairy-tale status are of course crucial cues in allowing us to accept the extraordinary story of a romance between an ordinary woman and a humanoid amphibian with magical powers. But they also allow us to enjoy another kind of fantasy alongside it: that of a bunch of underprivileged outsiders successfully sticking it to The Man. Elisa is mute. Giles, her ageing advertising-designer neighbour, is gay. Zelda, her best friend at the facility where they work, is black. And infiltrated into the facility's team of scientists is 'Bob', aka Dimitri, a Russian spy who has come to feel as strongly about science as he does about the motherland. Meanwhile, The Man himself manifests as Colonel Strickland, the facility's authoritarian, racist, misogynistic boss, who tortures the creature as much for fun as to learn anything from it and who takes the decision to vivisect it rather than trying to study it alive without it even occurring to him that this might be something to pause over, let alone actually doing so. In all this, he's the successor of Dr Mark Williams from the original film (LJ / DW), but much more starkly militaristic and exaggeratedly nasty. And boy, is it satisfying to see him out-foxed by our plucky band of misfits, pulling off the creature's liberation from the facility while he can't begin to imagine that they could even be capable of any such thing.

This might all sound rather heavy-handed, except that each character is drawn with such humanity it's impossible not to believe in them. In fact the entire story is approached with the same utter seriousness which makes Hammer's dark fairy-tales just as compelling. No-one here has their tongue in their cheek, or behaves like an avatar standing in for a particular social group. Instead, each has their own inner turmoil and believable home-life (Zelda's lazy husband, Dimitri's careful ironing), including Strickland, whose career trajectory still doesn't quite satisfy his perfect all-American wife. On both sides of the balance, it's important that these characters aren't clichés and don't jump straight into their assigned roles. Elisa's friends need a lot of persuasion before they'll help her rescue the creature, while we see the system that creates Strickland in the even less sympathetic General Hoyt above him, and in how easy it is for a smarmy car salesman to talk him into buying an expensive Cadillac in a colour he doesn't like.

The film is also dripping with deeply symbolic detail, which likewise might have seemed over-done if it weren't for the fairy-tale framing and the believability of the characters. Most obvious is the colour-palette, all muted, swampy greens and blues in scaly patterns to suit the aquatic theme, but also to set off occasional departures the more starkly - like the red dress and shoes which Elisa is suddenly wearing the day after she and the creature have found out how to express their affection physically. Perhaps next most obviously, the oppressive machinery of capitalism. Vents and pipes above the creature's tank resemble not only the original Gill-Man but also (to me at least) the Machine-Mammon from Metropolis (1927). Elisa, Zelda and their co-workers are slaves to the facility's clocking-in system and CCTV cameras. And when the creature staggers into the cinema below Elisa's apartment, he finds it showing scenes of slaves working in the mines from The Story of Ruth (1960).

shape-e-23118.jpg Machine Mammon Metropolis.jpg

The cinema complex itself is called the Orpheum, perfectly underpinning Elisa's use of music (and boiled eggs) to win the confidence of the creature - though she plays it jazz on a portable record player rather than singing to the lyre. The facility is called the Occam institute, which drove me to Wikipedia - I know the basic principle and couldn't see how it might apply to this story, but found my answer in the biology section, where it turns out that it has featured quite heavily in debates around evolution and the matter of whether or not any animals share human-style psychology. There we are very much amongst the concerns of del Toro's story. Finally, in case it wasn't clear enough how rotten Strickland is, he spends most of the film with two of his fingers, severed by the creature after one too many electric shocks and reattached by surgeons, blackening and reeking as the attachment fails and they die on his hand. Towards the end, in one of several body-horror moments which had me squirming in my seat and putting my own fingers over my eyes, he acts out just how literally he has gone to pieces by pulling them off and throwing them at the terrified Zelda. I'm sure there is much more besides.

Nothing quite stops the niggling world-building questions bubbling up. Like, if the creature is 'from the Amazon', why does it seem to need saline water and return quite happily to the ocean at the end? And how exactly would its ability to switch between lung- and gill-based breathing systems be any particular help in the Space Race, as both the Americans and Russians seems to think? But ultimately none of these matter next to Elisa's coy, satisfied smile and the electric blue lights flickering across the creature's body. For that, everyone involved deserves my profoundest thanks, and I only hope the cinema industry as a whole is watching and learning.

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A few weeks ago, I toddled over to [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313's house to watch her DVD copy of this, as I was aware of the impending release of The Shape of Water, and wanted to see the film which inspired it. I've yet to get to The Shape of Water (though I'm hoping to do that this coming week), but in the meantime I am so glad I've finally seen this film in its own right. Of course I'm generally of the opinion that most horror movies are about far more than just a monster chasing a girl - otherwise, I wouldn't enjoy the genre so much. But this is one of the ones which I might now choose to show as an example to someone unconvinced of that position.

For starters, it is strongly infused with both an environmentalist and an anti-colonialist critique. The Black Lagoon of the title is far up the Amazon, and the Creature a product of that environment. The team of geologists who go up there and disrupt its world find fossils in the rocks which look exactly like it, and dialogue about how very little has changed in the Amazon since the Devonian period (from which the fossil originates) encourages us to draw the obvious conclusion - that this creature is a surviving member of the same species, which has been living there, undisturbed and unbeknownst to humans, for millions of years. Meanwhile, we are given plenty of scope for reading almost everything the creature does as an entirely natural reaction to a bunch of alien invaders storming in and assaulting its territory. Even its initial attack on two geological excavators who are waiting in camp while their leader goes to do some lab analysis on the fossilised web-fingered hand they have found, and which serves the narrative purpose of establishing that the creature can be dangerous, can also be read as its entirely understandable response to them disturbing the remains of its ancestors, exacerbated by their own instinctive response of attacking it as soon as it enters their tent. This early attack scene strongly suggests that the creature possesses very human-like emotional responses and intelligence, too. Having killed the camp workers, the creature leaves one of their severed hands standing upright in the middle of the tent, in what I am pretty sure is meant to be a pointed response to their treatment of the fossil: I do to you as you have done to my ancestors.

Once the action moves from the site of the initial fossil discovery to the Black Lagoon itself, similar patterns continue. The creature is clearly fascinated by the expedition, and particularly with Kay Lawrence, played by Julie Adams. But the humans' response to realising it is there is to want to capture it, and indeed to use potent chemicals which have the side-effect of stunning every single fish in the lagoon to do so. The audience is left with plenty of room to sympathise as the creature too becomes violent, and again shows its intelligence by blocking their boat into the lagoon with a barricade of fallen trees. I was reminded very much of Frankenstein, in which it's perfectly easy to imagine an alternative fork for the story involving Victor treating his creation decently from the start and it never becoming a monster as a result. (Not that Universal actually allowed for this in their own treatment of Frankenstein, which was a lot of the reason why I didn't like it: LJ / DW.) Here, the team of scientists are not responsible for having made the creature in the first place, but by showing how their behaviour leads to its actions, the film makes them partly culpable for what happens. And because they are led by white Americans and operating in South America, this in turn supports a reading which is critical of broader white exploitation of both landscapes and peoples.

The dynamics within the team allow for more detailed working-through of these larger themes, too. In particular, there is quite a lot of tension between them concerning different possible responses to the creature. Dr Mark Williams, who has been characterised from the start as mainly driven by money and personal ambition, wants to capture it, and doesn't mind at all if it dies in the process, while others argue for leaving it alive and studying it in its natural habitat. So that allows different possibilities to be aired, and our sympathies are very much steered towards the 'study it in its natural environment' option, as that one is being voiced by a nicer character. (I rather wished they'd actually gone ahead and done it, as the creature is largely treated within this story as though it were the last of its kind, and I would have liked that issue to be aired and investigated.) There are other aspects of the team dynamics which rather undermine the progressive headline take, though. In particular, the local people involved in the story (the two camp workers at the start and the crew of the boat which goes to the lagoon) are all characterised as rough, uneducated and subordinate to the white characters, with no particular interest of their own in their home landscape and environment. Likewise, Julie Adams as the film's sole female character is very much in an Attractive Assistant role - theoretically a scientist, but actually there mainly to support her man and of course become the object of the creature's interest.

The creature itself, by the way, is always spoken of as male by the characters in the film, and the cast and crew in a very good 'making of' documentary included on [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313's DVD. To be fair, the people inside the suits (there were two, one on land and one in the water) were indeed male. But was the creature? No-one in the film gets a chance to look at its biology in any detail, and nor do we have any idea what it thinks about itself. So I've decided I prefer to subvert the face-value presentation and imagine the creature is female, and thus that its interest in Julie Adams is a case of same-sex, though different-species, attraction. I wouldn't want to cast it as unproblematically romantic, though, whatever the genders involved, as it is actually quite stalky - there's a lot of the creature watching her and reaching for her while she is utterly unaware it is doing so. But there is certainly something very poignant about the famous shots in which it mirrors her swimming under the water. I look forward to seeing Guillermo del Toro work through the potential relationship between two such beings in detail.

Creature from the Black Lagoon mirroring.gif

Nor indeed are those the only strikingly-beautiful shots in the film. Far from it. I didn't realise until we watched the making-of documentary afterwards, but apparently the film was originally shot and released in 3D, because the producers realised that it was going to have to involve quite a lot of extended underwater scenes during which the characters could not speak to each other. So, to pre-empt audience boredom arising from lack of dialogue, they aimed to make those scenes more engaging via the use of 3D. Obviously, we didn't see it that way (though I would love to!), but we were still watching a film whose producers had put a lot of effort into making it visually interesting. Even without the 3D effects, the underwater scenes are absolutely gorgeous, as I think the gif above attests, and indeed the film as a whole very nicely put-together.

Well, that's it then. I am ready for Shape of Water, AND furthermore I am actually up to date on my film and book reviews!!! I don't think I have been on top of both of them at once since at least 2015, and I can't tell you how relieved I am to have finally got here. I can read and watch whatever I want now, without feeling ground down at the thought of yet another addition to a huge back-log. I could even write about my actual life a bit! Or do whatever I want. Who knows what joys and wonders I will discover in this brave new world...

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I saw this in early January at the Hyde Park Picturehouse with a chap I know through local Lib Dem activism called Troy. Much as I had enjoyed The Force Awakens for being "much the same as the original three films, except that the characters now have new names and faces" (LJ / DW), I am also glad this one chose to break the mould and subvert some of the tropes which the series has developed. It would be a bit boring to keep on re-treading the same old ground, and it was fun here in particular to see Poe Dameron's brave and rebellious escapade revealed as completely pointless. The whole thing could of course have been avoided if Vice-Admiral Holdo had just explained to him what she was planning and why a bit earlier - but then again, problems which could have been solved with a bit of basic communication are at the heart of an awful lot of fiction and drama. It's hard to have a good story if everyone completely understands one another from the start.

Besides, while Poe's escapade may have been 'pointless' in straightforward plot terms from the rebel point of view, actually as far as world-building and story-telling goes it very much isn't. Without it, we as the viewers would miss some very revealing insights into the nature of the society which has both created and been shaped by the victory of the First Order - the casino full of wealth and privilege which turns out to be based on weapons-dealing, the rogue hacker, DJ, whom we expect to be an anti-authoritarian hero but turns out to embody the selfish cynicism which has infused the galaxy, and the dirty stable-kids at the bottom of the heap, looking and hoping for something better. Actually, I found that last bit about the kids less than entirely convincing - those kids are too young to remember or expect anything different from what they know, and I'm all too aware from contemporary UK politics how easy it is for the people most crushed by any system to be most susceptible to absorbing and internalising its ideologies. But, that aside, it's important to how this kind of story works to have people who symbolise the sort of better world the heroes are fighting for, and it's important for Rose and Finn, who barely know anything different themselves either, to see that and have it to drive them on through some seriously adverse circumstances later in the movie.

Meanwhile, I enjoyed Rey's disillusionment with Luke, her determination to train herself up anyway, and his heroic self-sacrifice at the end. I also very much liked how Kylo Ren has developed. In my Force Awakens review (LJ / DW), I wrote: "Obviously he's going to be redeemed in the third film - that is clearly where the entire story-line is leading." I now think I'm wrong about that. He has become the leader of the First Order, and I don't think you can come back from that. But I loved all the yin-yang stuff between him and Rey, the moments in which he appeared to have decided to throw his lot in with her and the denouement which revealed that for him that was actually only a temporary alignment of interests. Their fight-scene together against Snoke and his guards was beautiful to watch.

The saddest thing of all about it was how obvious it is that the final film in the sequel trilogy was clearly set up to revolve around Leia Organa. Of the three original main characters, the first film was Han's, the second Luke's, and here at the end we come down to a tiny handful of rebels with nothing but hope to keep them going and Leia to tell them to hang onto it. Now, she won't be able to do that. It seems a bitter irony of the kind Carrie Fisher would have been quick to see - women are always made to wait too long, promised that their great moment is coming, until it becomes too late. Doubtless creative solutions will be found, but I wish she and we could have had the Leia-centred film she always deserved.

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Last October, Andrew Hickey wrote an excellent blog post to mark the 25th anniversary of the broadcast of Ghostwatch (1992), a BBC production with a rather special place in cult TV history. I have always wanted to watch it, and his post forcefully reminded me why, as well as revealing that it is now available on a DVD two-set along with The Stone Tape (1972), which I have also always wanted to watch. I therefore put them on my Christmas wish-list, and Santa (acting through the medium of my sister) kindly obliged. Arguably, neither is really a 'film' - they are both one-and-a-half hour long scripted BBC TV dramas, which I guess have been packaged together as they both involve people investigating paranormal phenomena. But now that I no longer have a back-log of some twenty actual films to write up, I can expand the limits of what belongs on this tag a little. And besides, I want to write about them anyway.

1. The Stone Tape (1972), dir. Peter Sasdy

I should have loved this. After all, it was made in the early seventies, directed by a man who regularly worked for Hammer (e.g. he directed Taste the Blood of Dracula), and concerns the supernatural with what turns out to be a significantly folk-horrorish vibe. If I'd watched it at the right time in my life, I probably would have loved it. The fact that I didn't I think stems partly from the very fact that it has been elevated to such cult-classic status over the year, and partly from the fact that I now live in a world that allows me to be alert to gender disparities - but many of the people who have raved about it either didn't, or do and don't care. This effect is very neatly captured in the 'Cultural significance' section of its Wikipedia page, where the final paragraph quotes six people in a row saying how wonderful it is... but all six of them are men.

The result was that I already knew the core story-line before I watched it - in essence, that what appear to be ghosts haunting a cellar turn out to be memories written into its stones, and extending far back before the construction of the cellar to the prehistoric stone-beds they were quarried from. Knowing this meant I didn't have the capacity to be wowed by that revelation. It was already a given for me. But I certainly did have the capacity to notice that there is only really one significant female character in the story - Jill Greeley, played by Jane Asher - and that her basic role in the story is to be sensitive to and scared by the ghosts. She is part of a team of scientists who have been sent to an old country house to conduct intensive research into potential new sound recording methods, and in fact her framing within that team is an artefact of the historical period during which men did the 'proper science' and women programmed the computers. She is literally introduced at one point as "Jill who programs our computer". But the men around her repeatedly dismiss her concerns, block her investigations and eventually drive her into a situation where she ends up dying, horribly, alone in the haunted cellar.

The script doesn't entirely celebrate this behaviour - we're clearly invited to think that at least some of the men are assholes, and we're also given enough material to see that Jill is actually very bright and generally correct in her insights, so that if the men had listened to her earlier things might have turned out a lot better. But still, the positioning of her as the 'sensitive one' alone is enough to make the story cringeworthy and alienating for a twenty-first century female viewer, and the notion of memories being recorded into stone is nothing like enough to compensate for that. I just can't see myself feeling tempted to watch it again.

[I watched another film in between these two which I will return to, but am skipping it for now for the sake of reviewing both parts of the DVD set as it is now packaged.]

3. Ghostwatch (1992), dir. Lesley Manning

Thankfully, I liked Ghostwatch a lot better. The Wikipedia page describes it as a 'reality–horror/mockumentary television film' and provides lots of useful production context, while Andrew's excellent review also explains the concept, gives some good examples of how it works, and points out the crucial importance (way beyond the entertainment value of a Halloween ghost spoof) of the fact that it set out to encourage people to critically evaluate what they see on TV.

I watched it with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, and we found ourselves fascinated by the way the premise had been worked through, as well as for the insights it gave into early '90s culture. It was noticeable that the family at the centre of the hauntings consists of a single mother and her two children, and that this appears to have been done specifically because it would be easy for the audience to believe that the occupants of such a 'broken home' might be more than usually sensitive to, or even a target for, supernatural horrors. So something a little bit like the hypersensitive Jill Greeley in The Stone Tape was still going on here - but to nothing like the same cringeworthy extent, and with much more to compensate for it. There was even a female academic being interviewed 'live' in the studio!

Though Andrew is right that the whole production is incredibly cleverly put together, it did give itself away at a very early stage when what was labelled as 'university footage' from a bedroom in the haunted house panned and zoomed towards the action as soon as something started happening. A fixed CCTV camera wouldn't do that, and a fixed CCTV camera is what you would use if you were trying to get an objective record of what was happening in the room without a) introducing human bias or b) requiring 24-hour human monitoring. So that broke our suspension of disbelief by revealing the hand of a director striving to deliver a dramatic experience. Other revealing flaws included talking to somebody 'live in New York' from the studio with absolutely no delay on the line, and the fact that all of the supposedly 'ordinary' people in it, including various children, people gathered in the street to watch the 'documentary' being filmed and callers phoning into the studio, spoke clearly, articulately and concisely rather than being shy, mumbling, or going on about trivial details for ages - as real people actually do when they find themselves on TV.

Other than that, though, there was very little to give it away as anything other than an absolutely genuine chunk of early '90s reality television, complete with all the presenters you would expect to see fronting it. I was just sorry that in practice, we were watching it a little over 25 years later, and thus couldn't fully see how it would have looked alongside the regular TV productions of the day. The lighting, camera techniques, and reporting techniques looked different from what we see on comparable news and reality programmes now, but I'm no longer quite able to say how well they matched those of 1992 - though my guess is 'very well indeed'.

As for the story, it is a fairly simple 'horrible thing happened here once and hasn't been laid to rest' ghost story, but that is absolutely right for what is purporting to be a documentary about a real haunting case. The story itself should be quite tropish and formulaic, precisely to underpin the sense of realism, while the clever stuff lies instead (as Andrew has shown) in the presentation and the way it makes you think about what you are seeing. We did think it got a bit silly at the end, as the 'ghost' escaped from the ordinary suburban house where it had first manifested and began making lights blow out and cameras roll across the floor in the studio from which Michael Parkinson had been charismatically interviewing guests throughout. I thought a much better line to follow here would have been to capitalise on the psychology of Mike Smith, stuck in the studio, seeing his wife Sarah Greene apparently in grave danger in the house. This opportunity isn't completely missed - we do see Smith getting a bit distracted from his designated task of monitoring the studio phone-lines towards the end of the show. But if the events he's seeing from the house are real, he should be absolutely flipping his lid, shouting at the studio team, demanding people at the filming location go in after his wife, and generally going utterly to pieces out of a combination of fear and impotence. That could have been a lot more psychologically compelling, and indeed convincing, than the OTT 'everything going crazy' we actually got at the end.

Still, though, a very impressive piece which I felt deserved its place in cult TV history. I only wish I'd felt the same about The Stone Tape.

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Reading an academic book on Kindle

Last year, before I went to Australia, I bought a Kindle so that I could load it up with books for my trip and thus reduce the weight of my luggage. I've found it very amenable for leisure-type reading, but today for the first time I tried to use it for academic reading, and found the experience utterly frustrating and tedious.

Reading in a linear fashion is fine, but of course that is not the reality of much academic reading. Kindle books are well set-up to support footnotes - they pop up at the bottom of the screen, and you can also move back and forth between the 'page' you are on and the footnotes section with a single click each way.

The problems kick in when you want to flick back and forth between the text and the bibliography (e.g. to check the full title of an abbreviated reference in the notes) or between the index and the text (e.g. to see what the author has to say on a particular topic). I do understand that I can move back and forth between different parts of the book either by memorising a location number and using the 'go to' function, or by using that view where you can see nine pages at once and there's a slider at the bottom. But both are much slower and more cumbersome than the traditional method of having one finger in the bibliography / index and the other in the text.

For similar reasons, I also struggled to get an overall sense of the shape and trajectory of the book. I could see the table of contents, but without page numbers I couldn't see how long each chapter was, so it wasn't easy to see how much space the author had allocated to one or the other topic. Nor could I find the plates referred to at various points in the text. Plates aren't usually paginated, so wouldn't be listed in the table of contents or list of illustrations, but at least in a physical book you can see them, just by looking at the fore-edge.

Theoretically, the Kindle's capacity to highlight passages and annotate them should be super-useful for academic reading, but again in practice I found both processes so cumbersome that I stopped bothering, and just took notes on my computer, the same way as I would while reading a paper book. It did occur to me at the very end of the day that that particular problem might have been resolved by using the Kindle app on my tablet, rather than my actual Kindle, since the tablet has a much more responsive touch-screen (which would have made the highlighting easier) and the keyboard which pops up when required is larger (which would make the annotating easier). But even then, the other frustrations described above would still remain.

If you've used a Kindle for research-focused reading, what have your experiences been? Are there hints or tips which I'm missing, or is it just always like this?

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This is a New Zealand horror comedy which [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 gave planet_andy on DVD for his birthday, and which I watched with them just before Christmas.

On one level, it's about mutant zombie sheep. On another, it's about the conflict between GM (and similarly interventionist approaches to farming) and good old-fashioned tradition. But mainly, it's about mutant zombie sheep.

The production values on the sheep themselves were actually very high, so that it was difficult to tell the difference between the real sheep they had filmed running around menacingly and the zombie sheep puppets they had created, except by their behaviour on screen. They'd done an impressively good job of rendering people being turned into mutant zombie sheep or getting torn apart by them, too.

Along the way, we got lots of nice evil scientists and capitalists, some very earnest environmental activists, plenty of kick-ass action and at least one sheep-shagging joke. I am confident that this is the only horror film I have seen so far, and probably the only one I will ever see, in which the monsters are eventually defeated by setting fire to a sheep's fart.

Not much else to say about this, really, except that it was excellent silly fun. BUT this is actually my final film write-up for 2017, and that is truly liberating. I will start on 2018 forthwith...

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On Friday night, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313, planet_andy and I wended our way to Batley Library for The Book of Darkness and Light, a two-player ghost story show. I wasn't 100% sure what to expect in advance, other than promises of spookiness, but TBH that was enough for me! As it transpired, the set-up was for Adam Z. Robinson to act as the main presenter and narrator of stories which he had written, while Ben Styles lent them the perfect atmosphere with his violin, and an assistant with a lap-top generated other sound-effects. Adam's role was very much like Robert Lloyd Parry's approach to telling M.R. James' ghost stories, in that he dressed in an Edwardian style, took on the mannerisms and some of the actions of the characters during his performance, used a few simple props (an aged book, a tankard, a candle) and did the entire 90-minute performance verbatim from memory. The differences were that the stories themselves were his own original compositions, he had worked with Ben Styles from the start so that story and music were inherently inter-twined, and occasional 'voice-overs' from off-stage characters (e.g. letters, newspaper reports) gave him short respites during the performance.

The evening began with Adam introducing a framing narrative about how the Book of Darkness and Light (represented by a prop book which looked genuinely like it had come straight off the shelf in an alchemist's study) had somehow come into their possession, and that they would share three stories from it with us. When the first of those stories began with Adam explaining that it represented a testimony in court taken from the documents of a legal firm called Magnus, Alberic and Barchester, I knew I could snuggle down in my seat, safe in the knowledge of a very pleasurable evening ahead. The story transpired to be set in the present day, as it revolved around an MP whose role in applying very contemporary-sounding pension cuts came back to haunt him in a direct and literal manner. The language was quite Jamesian throughout, though, as were the descriptions of a creeping damp horror becoming more and more present in the MP's bedroom. It also had a nice false shock moment when the MP thought he had seen something horrific over his shoulder in the mirror, but it turned out to be just his dress jacket hanging on the back of the door. My one reservation about this story, though, was that its morality felt too simplistic, to the point of wish-fulfilment. I'm afraid I rolled my eyes in particular when I heard a line about how the MP was eager to get along to a Commons debate about MPs' pay, and thought immediately of those stupid memes with fake pictures about that very issue. Plenty of the victims of James' ghosts are villains who deserve everything they get in a similar way - Dr Haynes in 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral', who proves to have murdered his way to an Archdeaconry, is a very good example. But the line about the pay in particular just seemed too much like easy low-hanging fruit (as the popularity of those memes proved), while James' ghosts don't tend to literally shout "You did this!" at their victims. That aside, though, a good start to the evening.

The middle story was shorter and simpler, and boiled down to a wicked stepmother tale. Here, the stepmother was a dancer, and the star of the stage, but gradually her young stepdaughter began to eclipse her until, consumed with jealousy, she ordered her to practice her dancing in the stairwell of the theatre, locked both of the doors which led to it, and then set the whole place on fire so that the girl died. The story is told in the journal of an urbex photographer, who has gone there with a friend, drawn by the story of the girl's death - but not entirely expecting to find her there, still dancing on the stairs. This one didn't pretend to be anything other than a simple, straightforward ghost story (terrible thing happens, echoes of it still imprinted at the scene of the crime), but it was nicely told, and the way Adam narrated the girl's death-scene, still dancing and dancing in spite of the fire until she can do so no longer, was particularly effective.

Finally, the third story was the absolute highlight of the evening for me. It centred on a historian in the early 1950s going on a research trip to view a village roundhouse (or lock-up), and discovering not only that some dark horror lurks within, but also that it had been built directly over the site of a hanging-tree used for executing witches. No simple morality this time - the main character's only flaws are being a bit overly-convinced of his own cleverness, fatal Jamesian curiosity, and failing to recognise that he is in a horror story. He takes rooms on one side of the village square, from which he can see the roundhouse in its centre, and night after night he watches an eerie and unsettling child standing before the roundhouse door, facing away from him, and prompting some mutterings about local parenting which reminded me very much of Arthur Machen's story 'The Happy Children' which we saw an adaptation of in Whitby (LJ / DW). Each time he sees the child, it is slightly further back from the roundhouse, and slightly closer to the house where he is staying, but when it disappears one night, does he realise that it is in the house??? Nope - at least, not until he encounters it one night on the stairs, that is! From there, things transpire pretty much as you might imagine - and the rising sense of tension as it got closer and closer to his bedroom door, and finally to the poor man, curled up terrified in the bed itself, was delicious.

The ending for him was not a happy one, but we came away giddy with the thrill of it all, and only sorry that this was the last night on the current tour. The good news is that they are already planning a new show for autumn/ winter 2018 - and [personal profile] miss_s_b, [profile] hollyamory, [personal profile] magister and Andrew Hickey can bet their boots I will be evangelising wildly about it when they do!

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In 1928, an unauthorised Turkish version of Stoker's Dracula was published. Like Makt Myrkranna a generation earlier, it's a free adaptation rather than a translation. For example, it bears the title Kazıklı Voyvoda (Impaler Voivode), which is what the Ottomans called the historical Vlad Dracula, includes dialogue spelling out explicitly that he is the exact same person (rather than hinting allusively at the idea like Stoker), and shifts the post-Transylvania action to Istanbul rather than London. This film is based on that book, but adds its own layer of adaptation as well by updating it to the 1950s. There's a pretty good page explaining all about it here (annoying auto-playing video, but you can kill it and read a transcript underneath instead), and if you're lucky enough to speak Turkish, the original film is here.

Unfortunately, I am not, so I had to watch this version instead, which a) is a very shonky print indeed, b) has had the original sound-track completely overwritten by discordant organ music throughout (except for one dancing scene) and c) has subtitles which were clearly generated with the help of automatic translation software. Of these flaws, it's the shonkiness of the print that's really irritating. It meant I struggled to tell what was going on half the time, and certainly couldn't appreciate what seems (from a quick glance at the Turkish-language version linked above) to have been pretty decent camera-work. All I can really say is that possibly some effects were quite surreal and phantasmagorical and some shots nicely composed, but I'm not 100% sure. The subtitles, by contrast, were absolutely charming. I had fun counting the multiple different ways in which they spelt 'Dracula' - at least eight by my reckoning, although the only ones I can remember now are Dracula, Drakula, Drukala, Dragula, Draqula and Draquelle. I was also highly amused when the moment came for him to proclaim his past as the legendary Impaler - or, as the subtitles had it, the Poker! But the best moment of all was when our 1950s Dracula asked Azim (the Jonathan Harker character) to write three emails to his friends because the postal service was so bad. Brilliant.

These frustrations and sillinesses aside, it was a fascinating adaptation to watch. Despite being in some ways two good hearty steps (novel adaptation, then film) away from Stoker, it actually retains a surprising amount of detail from the original, and more than some films which claim to be faithful adaptations. For example, it includes scenes of Dracula crawling down the wall of his castle, Azim hitting him on the forehead with a shovel and Sadan (the Lucy character) saying she is floating in green water and that it feels both sweet and bitter when Dracula bites her. The first two of those are rare in film adaptations, and I don't think I've ever seen another one which retains Lucy's description. Some of the unexplored corners of Stoker's novel also get filled in as well. I particularly appreciated the landlady in Bistritz adding weight to her pleas to Azim not to go to Dracula's castle by explaining that her son didn't listen to such warnings a year ago and is now dead. I've always wanted to know what experiences she and her husband have had before Jonathan Harker arrives which cause them to react so strongly when they hear where he is going, and I think the producers of this film (or the author of the novel it's based on?) were right to identify this as one of the implied possibilities.

Meanwhile, there are all sorts of intriguing little changes, too - some obviously for pragmatic reasons, some for more dramatic ones. Pragmatic changes include just the one vampire bride (a popular budget-saving measure) and no Demeter (ditto). Dracula does seem to arrive into Istanbul by boat, but this is conveyed simply by Guzin (Mina) and Sadan (Lucy) meeting people carrying boxes from Romania up from the shore. Sadan's mother is included in the story (not often the case, and probably reflecting the strength of Turkish family structures) and dies in similar circumstances to Stoker's original, but there's no wolf crashing through the window (again for obvious budgetary reasons). And garlic entirely takes the place of crosses, as is appropriate for a non-Christian context and as Zinda Laash (LJ / DW) also did for the same reasons (though additionally ditching the garlic and the stakes).

Less obviously pragmatic / logistical changes include Dracula having a servant in his castle, who conveys some of what were his lines in the original novel: for example the warning to Azim not to fall asleep anywhere except his bedroom and the library. This I like - I've always been quite invested in the idea of Dracula having human servants in his castle, as it demonstrates his power to bend people to his will and the extent of his domination over the local populace. He also seems to have some additional supernatural powers which don't come from Stoker - specifically the ability to materialise out of nowhere (though Stoker's Dracula can solidify from mist into human form) and to make a piano play ghostly music using nothing but the power of his will.

Guzin (Mina)'s characterisation is also quite significantly changed - or at least, developed quite considerably along its logical trajectory. Far from being a school-teacher (only ever an off-page role for Mina anyway), she is a show-girl, and generally very much the independent, modern 1950s woman. In one scene, she teases her husband by telling him that she is knitting something for 'another stud' who will visit them in eight months' time. What she means, of course, is that she is pregnant, but he is utterly oblivious, and I don't think ever cottons on until after the end of the main story. Her profession is also used quite deliberately for titillating belly-dancing sequences, as are scenes of her in the bath. I suspect this material would have seemed quite saucy anywhere when this film was made, let alone Turkey specifically, but presumably it was done in the expectation of boosting box-office takings. Certainly, it's another point of connection with Zinda Laash, which gives Dracula's vampire bride a seduction-dance and includes scenes of dances in the local bar as well. What I don't know is whether Turkish cinema in this period had as strong a tradition as Pakistani and Indian cinema of more-or-less obligatory dance sequences. In any case, here it all paves the way for an excellent climactic scene where Dracula traps her in the theatre where she works, commands music out of the piano and makes her dance just for him - now uncannily like The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (LJ / DW), in which he does just the same to the dancer Lakshmi.

Overall verdict - a very enjoyable version which was probably better in its original form that I could appreciate from the version I saw (but then again gained a lot from its terrible subtitles!). I'd definitely like to see this in a better-quality print, and I also really want to read the novel it's based on. An English translation actually came out only a few months ago, but seems to have been released as a print book only in the USA, which is a bit annoying and the main factor that has stopped me actually buying it so far. I'll definitely get to it at some point, though.

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I saw this one with [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and [profile] planet_andy at the Cottage Road cinema as one of their Classics, and thus accompanied by the usual vintage ads at the start and intermission part-way through, including a lady with an ice-cream tray.

I'm never going to be hugely set on fire by any crime drama - it's just not my thing. But I could see this was a good one. It's all very tightly-plotted, with lots of fine detail in the dialogue and characterisation, so that not a line or action is wasted and you need to keep on your toes to follow everything. The costumes are fab (especially on the ladies), and the cinematography is very effective - although since the effect it is often striving for is a sense of tension, unease or claustrophobia, it isn't quite accurate to call it beautiful. And it's always nice to enjoy the presence of well-beloved faces: for me here, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in particular.

Apparently for Greenstreet, who is most famous as the proprietor of the rival bar to Rick's in Casablanca, this was his first screen role (though he was already well experienced on the stage), but he certainly seems well at home in front of the cameras. He absolutely owns the scene in his hotel room where he strings Sam along as a prelude to drugging him, as well as the one at the end when Sam finds him and his henchmen waiting in his apartment and they all pass a tense night of confrontation before he finally discovers that the falcon is a fake. I do love me a good villain.

I'm sure there's bucket-loads more which could be said about this film, but that's all I got.

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32.-33. Christoper Lee twofer

I've just got five remaining 2017 film reviews to write now. I'm going to try to knock out one or two an evening this week, so that I can get on to the four films I've seen by now in 2018 by the weekend.

32. Dracula (1958), dir. Terence Fisher

I watched this on the weekend just before Halloween 2017, when my sister and her family came to stay. After the children were in bed on the Saturday night, I suggested an M.R. James adaptation, which is what we had watched on the same occasion the year before, but my sister said she'd like to see a Hammer horror film, and after some discussion we decided on this one. Obviously, I've seen it a few time before (previous reviews are indexed on my Christopher Lee list: LJ / DW), but this viewing offered me the opportunity of seeing it through the eyes of people who haven't flagrantly over-watched it. Charlotte (my sister) broadly knows the story of Dracula and reckoned she had probably seen this version once before during our childhood, but so long ago that she couldn't remember anything specific about it, while Nicolas (her husband) was coming to it pretty much cold. So I told them to share with me any thoughts or reactions they were having as they watched, and also periodically asked them questions to see what they were making of it.

Perhaps the most interesting outcome of this was their reading of the first encounter between Jonathan Harker and the vampire woman (who I just call Valerie Gaunt, because it's such a perfect name for a vampire) in Dracula's castle. Watching this, Charlotte announced her suspicion that Valerie must be a vampire straight away, and when I asked her why, she said she thought Harker had reacted with surprise because she was cold when he touched her – not something that's ever stated in the dialogue, but actually perfectly plausible within the terms of the story, since Tanya does notice that vampire!Lucy's hand is cold later on. Nicolas, meanwhile, wasn't at all convinced, arguing that she wouldn't be asking him to help her escape from Dracula's castle if she was a vampire. In other words, Charlotte read the scene correctly because she paid attention to the body-language, whereas Nicolas did not because he allowed himself to be taken in by the dialogue. I cannot help but observe that that's a very gendered split, although possibly Charlotte did have an advantage in the form of her slightly better knowledge of Dracula stories generally, which gave her a stronger expectation that there would be vampire women in Dracula's castle.

Other than that they followed the story much as you would expect, and seemed to enjoy it. With a bit of luck I'll be able to lure them further onwards into the series on future visits!

33. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014), dir. Peter Jackson

And this one was my last Lovefilm rental before their tragic closure. Perhaps not the best note to end that relationship on, actually, because this is how I had come to feel by about an hour and a half in:
In fairness, I should probably have anticipated that a film called 'The Battle of the Five Armies' might involve a fair amount of fighting. And it was pretty alongside the battles – the lake-town, the city near the mountain, the mountain façade, the icy mountain-tops. Plus it had Christopher Lee in it, at least for a little while, in one of his last few screen appearances.

Probably most interesting for me, though, was the strong inter-text between Luke Evans' portrayal of Bard the Bowman and his role as Vlad Dracula in Dracula Untold (LJ / DW). That is, both involve him leading a ragged band of desperate early-modern humans against a seemingly-unbeatable foe, shouting things like "Any man who wants to give their last, follow me!" and showing a tender concern for his family, set against a similar aesthetic of fortified cities, battles on plains surrounded by mountains and war-bats. The two roles overlap weirdly for him: judging from Wikipedia he'd already recorded all his scenes as Bard in both The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies before he began work on Dracula Untold, although Battle was released last (it's all rather complicated, primarily because of the way the Hobbit series was extended from two to three films part-way through). So that means he would have been playing Dracula in the knowledge of his completed performance as Bard, and I think the one probably did inform the other. And meanwhile, even before Battle's release it's not a stretch to imagine that Dracula Untold's production team was hoping to capture something of the feel of the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit films generally, and perhaps even specifically bits of Battle through general insider industry knowledge. It's always nice to put those sorts of jigsaw pieces together.

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A little over two years ago, I went to a staged reading of an unproduced Hammer script held at De Montfort University's Cinema And Television History (CATH) Research Centre entitled The Unquenchable Thirst of Dracula (LJ / DW), as part of the Mayhem Film Festival in Nottingham. This was essentially the same deal – a line-up of actors giving a live reading of a script based on unproduced material from the Hammer archives as part of the 2017 festival. In this case, though, there had never been a fully-developed original script. Instead, what the archive had to offer was a 13-page story treatment put together in 1970 by David Allen, but never taken any further.

For the purposes of the festival, Steven Shiel and the Mayhem team had worked that story treatment up into a full script, consciously aiming as they did so for something in keeping with the kind of film Hammer would have produced at that time, if they had developed this one for release. As for the Dracula reading I went to, they had also put together a nice set of opening credits, various evocative stills to project onto a cinema screen behind the actors during the reading, and some sound effects. The actors themselves had also broadly dressed correctly for their parts, without looking too much like something out of a fancy-dress shop, and occasionally did some body language or actions to match what was going on in the script – for example, removing braces or undoing shirt buttons when hot.

Again, as for Unquenchable Thirst, I came equipped with a notepad and basically wrote continuously throughout the production to capture an outline of what was going on, because I knew the production was a one-off and that there was no guarantee I would be able to experience the story again. I'll provide a brief plot outlineCollapse )

Once again, as for Unquenchable Thirst it was a real thrill to experience this story fresh on its first telling, with no idea at all what would come next. Hammer films generally are so thoroughly discussed nowadays that if you are at all interested in them, and thus read relevant books and discussion forums, it is more or less impossible to go into any of their films without a bunch of preconceptions and expectations. So one of the biggest gifts the Mayhem team are giving us is the ability to escape that, and experience (would-be) Hammer films raw for the first time. They and the acting cast certainly all did a great job of bringing this one to life for us, and I know I was captivated throughout. It's nice and pacy, and has also sorts of lovely little character moments and comic sequences to offer (which I've largely omitted from the outline above for the sake of brevity, but which were very enjoyable at the time). Certainly, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I had a grand old time on the front row roaring our heads off at what is basically an adventure-comedy story, albeit with SF elements.

It belongs to a specific genre, neatly encapsulated by the two Wikipedia pages on Lost World films, and Lost World novels, which isn't as close to my heart as gothic horror. So while I can certainly see how it relates to some of the other Lost World stories I have half-watched, I can't set it very precisely within its genre. I could, though, see how, like most such stories, it is inherently colonialist – as for example emerges in the motif of Fulmer, the British explorer, staying behind at the end to 'develop' the Dallick civilisation (i.e. make it more like his). Probably that's part of why I am not all that into Lost World stories generally – well, that and because they essentially boil down to Men, Men, Manly Men having Manly Adventures and either winning women as trophies or telling them to stay in the kitchen.

On that particular front, Zeppelin v Pterodactyl isn't actually too bad – at least as scripted and performed at Mayhem. In fact it sort of works through the issue in the person of Ruth Imrie, a newspaper photographer. The Captain of the Helios initially grumbles about how the ship / expedition is 'no place for a woman', but in fact she proves nothing but an asset throughout, and is certainly very unafraid and self-determined. There is a nice scene where she is dressing rope-burns on her hands caused by a harpoon rope which she had fired at a pterodactyl during an attack on the zeppelin. She is saddened because men from the crew still died despite her best harpooning efforts, but at this point the Captain remarks that she did what she could, constituting a recognition of her value and resolving his earlier misogyny. Ruth herself them explains how she dressed the wounds of soldiers at Mons in the war, and saw good men die – but, for the same reason, she also knows that there can be miracles. So we have a quite rounded picture there of a woman who has become experienced and independent as a direct result of exactly the circumstances which did have that very effect for many women in the First Word War and its aftermath. How much of that is actually present in the original 1970 Hammer story treatment, and how much creative embroidery by the Mayhem team is difficult to say. But my guess is that there was an outline of a 'strong woman' already there, which Steven Shiel worked up to its best effect, where potentially that might not have happened in a real 1970s production.

I'm not sure either whether some of the gorier moments in the script are original or were the Mayhem production team's attempts to recreate what Hammer were doing in the early '70s accurately. I certainly know that I enjoyed hearing about two pterodactyls pulling apart a zeppelin crew-member between them, before one of them is shot and the other drops his bloodied corpse down into the valley below, though! I also liked the use of Classical motifs for the name of the zeppelin (Helios) and for the arena games which characterise the decadent society of the Sithar. And I was reminded of the Doctor Who story The Daleks both by the name of the villagers (Dallicks) and by the broader set-up of simple villagers living outside an advanced city inhabited by hostile mutants, including scenes of people going through caves to infiltrate it. The resemblance puzzled me initially because influence tended to flow from film to TV in the '60s and '70s, not the other way round. But then I remembered that that particular Doctor Who story had also been made into an Amicus film starring Peter Cushing – so of course anyone writing a story treatment for Hammer in the late '70s would have been aware of it, and liable to rework elements from it.

Anyway, a great evening all round, and I will certainly be continuing to keep a close eye on the Mayhem film festival and any further Hammer manqué productions.

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This book is at once excellent and infuriating.

Excellent because it is very well-researched and bang up to date on all the latest Stoker-related discoveries (e.g. Makt Myrkranna, though news of Mörkrets Makter came post-publication). For me it was particularly valuable as a research resource for my Classical references in Dracula paper. I knew for example that Stoker's education must have included plenty of Greek and Latin literature, but Skal supplied the full details, including lists of what he would have had to cover for the Trinity College entrance exam, and then what he would have studied (however perfunctorily!) once there. Various further snippets illuminating Stoker's knowledge of and exposure to ancient literature and mythology continued to pop up periodically throughout the book, while of course the wider tide of influences which flowed into the novel permeate the narrative at every stage. I wanted to know more about the latter anyway, as it will certainly further enrich my paper by allowing me to situate the Classical stuff effectively into its bigger context.

But also infuriating because of two related flaws: one, a tendency towards serious over-speculation, especially where Stoker's sexuality was concerned, and two, an apparent obsession with Oscar Wilde. On sexuality specifically, a quick Google tells me that Skal is gay, and I completely get the importance of queer icons for those of us in that bracket. It's also probably true that if Stoker had been born a century later, he might well have emerged as being some flavour of queer - his gushingly enthusiastic letters to Walt Whitman alone pretty much guarantee that. I am with Skal up to that point. But it's all the unsupported speculation which follows from there which I couldn't stomach. Here's an example of what I mean, set at the opening night of Lady Windermere's Fan, when Wilde famously shocked everyone by giving out green carnations to his friends which clearly signified something scandalous:
We don't know what words Wilde exchanged with the Stokers that night, but we can assume he always thought of Stoker as something of a prig – the priggishness covering a submerged self Wilde could imagine all too well. It would have been so very easy, at the interval, while complimenting Florence on what a newspaper described as her 'marvelous evening wrap of striped brocade,' to discreetly slip a carnation into Bram's pocket to be discovered later. When he undressed.
Literally the only detail in that paragraph which is supported by any evidence is that Florence Stoker wore a striped brocade evening wrap. I do appreciate that Skal doesn't try to hide this, signalling clearly that he is speculating, but the historian in me is just yelling 'why write this at all?' Especially when it is so obviously geared towards trying to build up some picture of sexual frisson between Stoker and Wilde which we just don't have any evidence for.

Here's another one, this time relating to Stoker's long-term and very close literary friend Hall Caine, to whom (under his Manx nick-name 'Hommy Beg') he had dedicated Dracula, and specifically Caine's contact with Stoker's widow after his funeral:
Florence Stoker never heard from Hall Caine again. Perhaps, after a time, she finally had a candid conversation with Mary Caine, who had left her husband to live in London after decades of marriage, because he simply preferred the company of men. And perhaps Florence finally read the voluminous personal correspondence that must have existed between her husband and Caine during their intimate, decades-long friendship, the kind of letters that can only be written between two mutually trusting confidants looking for fathers and brothers and wives to their souls. And then, perhaps, she burned them.
Again - whyyyyyy???? If I had been Skal's editor, I would have crossed out everything after the first sentence with my red pen, and written 'unsubstantiated' in the margin. Argue that Stoker probably felt same-sex attraction, absolutely. There's a good case to be made for that. But don't build up fantastical scenarios about specific people on the basis of it which we just don't have any evidence for - at least not in what is supposed to be a research-based biography. Write it as fiction and label it as fiction if you want to go there.

I've just included two examples here, but there were passages like this throughout the book, and as it is 652 pages long in total by the end of it all I was getting really Quite Irritated each time yet another one appeared, and closer to throwing the book across the room than I can remember having got for a long time. And that feeling was just exacerbated by the sheer proportion of the book which wasn't actually about Stoker at all, but given over to those he over-lapped with, and especially Oscar Wilde. Now, don't get me wrong - Oscar Wilde is fun to read about. Indeed, I vividly remember spending every lunch-break and free period I could spare in the school library reading Richard Ellmann's biography of him when I was fifteen. But that's just the point. I've already read a biography of Wilde. I don't want to spend pages and pages re-treading the same material when I've bought a book specifically purporting to be a biography of Bram Stoker.

Sure, I know they knew each other and can see that there were significant parallels between their life paths. But again I think Skal is over-fixated on that idea, to the extent that it distorts his arguments about Stoker and his work in some places. In particular, writing about the Wilde scandal and the way Dorian Gray was used as evidence against him in court, Skal argues that as a direct response to this Stoker must have removed from Dracula a subplot about a painter who is unable to capture Dracula's image, which his notes (LJ / DW) show he had planned early on and which Skal has imagined as Dorian Gray-ish in tone. Specifically, he claims that in the climate created by the court case, "for Dracula to be saved as a publishable tale, it had to be shrunken, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedtime story of childhood abandonment and rescue".

I just can't agree. I've just read those notes, really carefully, and the painter character in particular appears only on the very earliest character-lists, written when Stoker first started kicking ideas around in 1890. By 1892, the full plot was pretty well sketched out, and indeed bar some extra material at the beginning which was eventually excised and (in part) resurfaced as 'Dracula's Guest' it is not that different from the novel as eventually published. No references to painters or painting are anywhere to be seen. Meanwhile, the Wilde trial was in the spring of 1895, long after this, and there's no sign in the notes of it prompting Stoker to undertake a major re-thinking, still less toning-down, of Dracula. Quite the opposite, in fact - notes from late 1895 and early 1896 show that he is still fleshing out the fine details of the final chapters, still much in line with the earlier plot outline, but with the scope and scale growing rather than shrinking. Skal's idea of some earlier, racier version which had to be hurriedly edited down is clearly sheer fantasy - but this time not even signalled as such.

In the end, I should probably have chosen a different biography of Bram to read. Ironically, I met and had a very nice chat with Paul Murray, the author of another one at the Dracula Congress I attended in Dublin, during which he railed about flights of over-imagination in yet a third and said that he preferred to stick to directly-attested facts. This sounded like very much the approach that I favour, and I was very impressed by the paper he gave at the conference for similar reasons. Later I let myself be seduced by Skal because his book was brand new, and although reading it certainly wasn't entirely wasted time I will probably still need to go back and read Murray's some time anyway. Oh well. I do at least feel considerably better for having had a good rant about it here!

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Two Robert Aickman videos

These two videos appeared in the sidebar of Youtube recently while I was watching an M.R. James documentary. I'm sharing them here primarily for the benefit of [personal profile] poliphilo and [personal profile] sovay, with both of whom I recently enjoyed a conversation about Aickman's work. [personal profile] rosamicula may also enjoy them, and / or wish to draw them to the attention of Mr. Ward. Apologies to [personal profile] sovay if it proves that either or both are blocked in the US - I can't tell from here.

First, a one-hour TV adaptation of 'The Hospice' from 1987:

This is excellent. It's a very faithful adaptation, which perhaps manages to be even more frightening and unsettling than the original story by virtue of being visual. Jack Shepherd does an excellent job as Maybury, conveying just perfectly the character's very English desire to respect local protocol and not make a fuss even when everything around him is becoming nightmarishly baffling and confusing. Some of the stuff which happens to him during the night is made more concrete and conventionally-frightening than in the original story, but that seemed to me like a good pragmatic decision, given how difficult it is to convey the internal, psychological fear at the heart of so much of the written version in a dramatic adaptation.

Second, a 53-minute documentary all about Aickman from 2015:

And this is excellent too! It certainly springs from and presents a very strong understanding of Aickman's work. I particularly liked a well-articulated statement early on about how his stories are typically open to both psychological and supernatural explanations, but that the one is in tension with the other, while Aickman of course refuses to choose between them and leaves that open to us. It is also really well put together and packed with excellent material - interviews with multiple close friends of Aickman, archive footage of his activities as part of the Inland Waterways Association, clips from various different TV adaptations of his work and even tape recordings of him reading some of his own stories. It adds up to a very good, detailed account of his life and activities, some of which I knew already from the introduction and afterword in my edition of Cold Hand in Mine, but which was nice to have rounded out into a fuller picture. I think his stories already make fairly clear that he was an unusual man, rather out of kilter or even sympathy with the rest of humanity, and the biographical details in this documentary confirm that ten-fold. But, as one of his long-term friends comments, that is partly because the best of him was in his work, and we can all be grateful for that. Meanwhile, and utterly tangentially to the point, this documentary also offers the additional pleasure of watching the Scotts, a couple who were also long-term friends of Aickman's, sit on a sofa throughout the documentary, mirroring one another's body-language, listening to one another respectfully and corroborating one another's statements. Bless them both for having built themselves such an obviously profound and harmonious partnership.

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Bram Stoker worked on Dracula on and off for six years between the commitments of his job as Henry Irving's manager. During that time, the way he ensured that he did not lose track of what he was doing was to take notes falling into two main categories: his plot and character ideas, and research notes on books and places providing details and settings to flesh them out and cloak them in verism. Those notes are held now by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, where they lay more-or-less untouched until the early '70s when Raymond McNally and Radu Florescu visited the library to view one of the fifteenth-century pamphlets published about Vlad the Impaler, and the archivist casually asked them if they would like to see Bram Stoker's notes for Dracula too? Since then they've been used by various scholars researching the genesis and development of the novel, and indeed parts of them have been made available as quoted extracts or transcripts within those people's publications. But this book has made them available in full to the general public for the first time.

This is obviously amazing for me, because I've long been aware of these notes and wanted to read them properly anyway, and that interest has become all the more pressing now I've decided to write a paper about Classical motifs in Dracula. Realistically, I wasn't going to travel all the way to Philadelphia just to research that - but thanks to Eighteen-Bisang and Miller, I can now do it in the comfort of my own home instead. It certainly paid off with regards to the specific topic of my paper. There is all sorts of evidence that Stoker actively set out to include antiquity within the scope of his researches – for example, he created a timeline of Transylvanian history for himself which extends from the 1st to the 19th century AD, which very much supports my core argument that this was the background and context into which he wanted to set Dracula as a character. But there are huge amounts of interest here beyond that one specific topic, ranging from watching Stoker develop and narrow down his list of key characters to scrutinising the little maps he drew to help make sure he could describe Whitby harbour accurately. You can even see how he added little notes to himself as he thought of new ideas, crossed items off as he put them into the novel itself, and had to fill in by hand gaps left in typescripts evidently done by someone else who could not always decipher his handwriting!

Indeed, that same issue clearly affects some of Eighteen-Bisang and Miller's own transcriptions of the hand-written portions of the notes. Stoker could write neatly when he wanted or needed to, but when writing notes intended for his own use, he didn't always bother. For the most part, Eighteen-Bisang and Miller clearly capture his meaning correctly, and I appreciated that they also occasionally signalled in footnotes when other authors had published different readings from theirs. But I noticed that they often ignored the symbols '+c' (for etc) and '+' (for and) in their transcriptions, while on one page they had transcribed "Roumenians take it that death is only sleep requiring cooking" for what was clearly actually "Roumenians take it that death is only sleep requiring waking" – as two seconds of thought and a bit of common sense should surely have told them. I also didn't feel their footnotes added very much to what was alresdy in the notes anyway. The majority of the footnotes just point to corresponding passages in the final novel, which I suppose saves us looking them up, but seemed a waste when they could have been used instead to provide further information about the content actually contained in the notes, similar to an annotated edition of an actual novel.

The appendices, which covered topics such as major themes in the novel as finally published, Bram's life and other publications, some of the major literary influences on his work (not reflected in any of his working notes) and what we know of the contents of his own library, were better. But even these are each individually rather short, and again mainly focused on the novel as published, rather than attempting to offer interpretations of the notes themselves. The only appendices which really relate to the actual notes are the final two, which outline the major differences between the notes and the published novel – but again, anyone who knows the novel would have seen those differences for themselves as they read the notes. The larger task of thinking about what the content of the notes really reveals in its own right – e.g. what the inclusion of particular characters, motifs or research details suggest about Stoker's initial conception of the novel and what their later rejection signals about how it evolved – hasn't really been attempted here. I guess the emphasis was always on getting the primary material of the notes themselves out, which I certainly appreciate, but it's a pity that the opportunity for an extended essay thinking seriously about them as a corpus was missed.

Edited to add: having checked my email after writing this, it turns out that while I was doing so my abstract for the 2018 Dracula Congress was accepted. So project 'Classical references in Dracula' is now definitively GO! I look forward to many happy evenings and weekends spent researching it and writing it between now and October, not to mention a trip to Romania at the end - hooray! :-)

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Theatre: Carmilla at Seven Arts, Leeds

I spent this evening at the Seven Arts theatre space in Chapel Allerton, where [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 had spotted that Spud Theatre were doing a production of Carmilla. We saw the same company do Dracula a few years ago (LJ / DW), and thought it was pretty decent for a local amateur production - certainly decent enough for us to be willing to try another of their shows. And we were right to do so, both coming out saying that we felt it had been better than the Dracula they'd done previously.

2018-01-19 19.42.03.jpg

Carmilla is a first-person story, told by a 19-year-old girl named Laura, and the way this production approached that was to have her character facing the audience directly and telling her story to them, punctuated by other actors entering and merging into scenes with her when she begins describing what other people said and did - at which points she turns and interacts with them instead. This worked really well, and (as I've confirmed by a quick glance at my copy of the story since I got home) meant that they could use masses of the original text verbatim. Of course, it did mean that the young woman playing Laura in particular had a lot of lines of crisp, eloquent mid-19th century prose to learn, and indeed almost every member of the cast had at least some quite long speeches to get through without the benefit of the prompts and cues that come with rapid-fire back-and-forth dialogue. So there were inevitably one or two muddles or hesitations - but remarkably few of them considering how much they had to say and that (as far as I know) it was their first performance. Overall, I thought they all spoke beautifully, really doing justice to Le Fanu's prose. The actual performances were impressive, too. Possibly slightly over-egged in a few cases - but that might just be because I'm more used to watching film and TV, where people can be more subtle, multiplied by the fact that we were sitting in the second row, so quite close up to the action. There may also be a case for saying that Carmilla herself was a little too fluttery and bubbly, given that she is also described in the dialogue as 'languid', but then again in and of itself it worked - it was just the slight contradiction with the dialogue which made it seem slightly off-tone for me.

As for the story itself, I don't think I've read it since I was a teenager, and of course it's been creeping steadily up my mental 'to-read' list over the past few months given the other things I've been reading and thinking about. So it was very welcome to have the opportunity to revisit it through this production. And isn't it great? It's certainly thrilling to think that pure Victorian ideals of female friendship allowed Le Fanu to get away with writing something that strikes modern audiences as so rampantly lesbitious. At least, I feel the need to read up on exactly how that worked and how it would have been received by contemporary readers. My current reading of David Skal's biography of Bram Stoker has primed me enough on the Irish cholera epidemics of the 1830s and '40s to see the resonances those must have given to the casting of Carmilla's nocturnal activities as a 'plague'; while of course it's obvious and widely recognised how much Stoker's own vampire novel owes to Le Fanu's. I can also see now how much Robert Aickman's 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' (LJ / DW) is drawing on this: particularly in its use of a young female first-person narrator and its device of vampires targeting their victims at balls. His vampire-character is male rather than female, but as I noted in my review, his female narrator does also seem distinctly interested in the contessa's daughter after she (believes she) has begun her transformation into a vampire, so Aickman manages to have it both ways - an opposite-sex main attraction, but also a same-sex sub-plot.

I think I will still revisit the story proper before long, not least to test out whether or not it uses Classical references at all in the same manner as Stoker's Dracula. It won't harm the paper I'm planning on that topic if it doesn't, as John Polidori's 'The Vampyre' and Edgar Allan Poe both certainly do, and we know that both were read by and influenced Stoker. So I've got a strong enough case to say that his Classical allusions are part of the tradition he is positioning himself within already - but another one or two tucked away within Carmilla certainly wouldn't hurt. I can only say for now that there definitely weren't any in this evening's performance - but who knows what there might be in the parts of the text they didn't use.

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I reckon if I just crack on with it and don't allow myself to get too carried away with any individual one, I can get my 2017 book reviews finished today. Let's see how that goes...

6. Nick Clegg (2016), Politics: Between the Extremes

I am Quite Ashamed that Nick Clegg has written and published a whole other book during the time it's taken me to get round to reviewing this one. I read it largely in the bath or by the pool-side in Cyprus, and for a book on politics it worked remarkably well in those settings. Clegg's written prose is impressively clear and fluent, while his content is very perceptive and intelligent on the current state of UK politics, articulating the significance of what's happened in recent years very clearly and often appearing extremely prescient on some of the things which have happened since it was published. It's exceptionally frustrating that he has undermined so much of what he might have had to offer in this book and in politics generally as a result of how he approached coalition government. No matter how thoughtful, valuable or well-meaning much of what he has to say is, he has now so completely trashed his capacity to reach a majority of people in this country that there is a significant extent to which he may as well not bother. But I do admire the thickness of skin which allows him to continue nonetheless, and in fairness he certainly isn't hoarding the lessons of his rather unique path through British politics to himself. He quite openly acknowledges that the coalition wasn’t exactly a roaring success for the Liberal Democrats, and sets out at least some of the reasons for that with considerable humility and perspicacity. Who can say whether he could have handled it better given the chance again, but I think his comments on the negotiation process and the day-to-day business of working with the Tories will be exceptionally useful to any smaller party attempting to form and work within a coalition with a larger party in the future. Indeed, I wondered wryly last June whether the DUP leadership had read it, given how efficiently they appear to have wrung everything they could out of the Tories in return for a mere confidence and supply deal. Few will agree with every political position he expresses - there were certainly a couple of passages which made me want to give him a shake and point out his blind-spots (though unfortunately I can't remember what on now, as I didn't take notes at the time). But it’s hard not to come away with the overall impression of an intelligent and compassionate man who is much more genuinely committed to improving the life-chances of everyone in the UK and beyond than he is often given credit for.

7. Radu Florescu and Raymond McNally (1989), Dracula, Prince of Many Faces: His Life and His Times

Read on my Kindle in Australia. Florescu and McNally are famous in Dracula circles above all for their 1972 book In Search of Dracula, in which they argued that Bram Stoker was inspired to write Dracula by a deep and profound knowledge of the historical Vlad III Dracula (rather than setting out to write a vampire story and dressing his creation in an impressionistic mish-mash of elements which certainly include Vlad's name and a few pickings from his life-history but don't privilege them). This isn't that book, but it's important context for how I approached this one, and relates directly to the next book I read as well. Basically, although I haven't read the 1972 book, it's famous now above all for over-interpreting Bram's prose to assume things without sound justification - e.g. assuming that wooden stakes are a key weapon against vampires because Bram knew Vlad had used them to impale his enemies, rather than because he had encountered this standard method of despatch during his research into general vampire lore. But it was also clear to me from what I'd read about the 1972 book that half the problem was that it was the work of two (somewhat over-enthusiastic) historians approaching a piece of literature without really understanding how an author like Bram works. On that basis, I was prepared to give Florescu and McNally a try as historians of the real historical Dracula, which is what they are being in this book. As such, for me it was a complement to reading Treptow's book on the historical Dracula a couple of years ago (LJ / DW).

Indeed, as history, it was pretty good, and certainly better than I'd feared from the things people say about the authors' 1972 book. In particular, they present lots of direct quotations from the primary source material, which is what I’m really after with regards to the historical Dracula (and why I liked Treptow's book so much). They also took a more systematic narrative approach that Treptow, who groups his material more thematically, which helped to fill out some details and clarify causes and effects for me where I hadn't fully understood them before. But there are some errors to catch - e.g. they think Whitby has a ruined Cathedral rather than an Abbey. And, more seriously, their interpretation of some of the primary material needed more thought. They are fully aware that the German and Russian pamphlets about Dracula’s atrocities were written with strong political agendas which have obviously strongly distorted their content, and indeed they discuss those agendas and the role of the pamphlets in furthering them at the appropriate point in the book. BUT they also still take the contents of the pamphlets very nearly at face value in other parts of the book when it suits them to do so. In other words, they commit the classic undergraduate dissertation student's error of explaining the 'problems' with the primary sources in their introduction, and then ticking that task off their to-do list, dusting their hands and going on to use those sources completely uncritically in the rest of the work. Luckily I have the training and experience to realise that that is happening and read around it, but it's irritating to see professional historians doing this, and perpetuating myths as a result.

8. Elizabeth Miller (2006), Dracula: Sense and Nonsense (2nd edn)

Also read on my Kindle in Australia. The basic premise of the book is that people talk a lot of unsupported nonsense about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so Miller goes through the most persistent and egregious myths systematically, quoting examples and explaining the problems with them. She explains the approach herself on this publishers' page about the book. I completely see the need for this. People do churn out ill-researched books on Dracula because anything with his name in the title sells, and I’ve been irritated myself often enough by the constant repetition of well-worn canards. Florescu and McNally's 1972 book claiming that Count Dracula the vampire was inspired by a detailed knowledge of Vlad III Dracula (mentioned above) is obviously a prime example, but there are plenty more. In general, Miller unpicks them very fairly, drawing on what is clearly an exceptional knowledge of the book, Bram's writing process and the scholarship around it, and guided by unerring critical facilities and a very sophisticated understanding of how both history and literature work. That said, I think the format of this book often encourages her to go a bit too far to the opposite extreme in the cause of killing off popular myths.

In the case of the relationship between the historical Dracula and the vampire Count, the detail of Miller's deconstruction of Florescu and McNally's claims is very good and entirely justified. As she shows, Bram's research notes make it very clear that he developed the character before he found the name, and probably only knew a few basic details about Vlad III Dracula's actual career. BUT the antagonistic 'what nonsense!' tone in which she presents her case has I think inspired a lot of people to take the whole issue on too much of a black-and-white basis. It's not exactly Miller's fault that lots of blokey horror fans on Facebook groups now rush to inform everybody that Bram's Dracula has 'nothing to do with' the historical Vlad every time the subject comes up, because in fact she herself is far more nuanced than this and entirely acknowledges that Bram did use snippets of Vlad to round out his creation without intending Dracula wholly to 'be' Vlad. But I think she has fed a climate in which the baby is entirely thrown out with the bathwater by people unable to appreciate these sorts of nuances. The same goes for other examples as well. E.g. she calls the idea that Bram drew on his relationship with Henry Irving to help develop his characterisation of Dracula 'fabrication', but to me 'over-simplification' would be fairer. Obviously authors draw on the real personal relationships they have experienced when crafting their characters, at least subconsciously, and there has to be a middle ground between ‘Stoker's Dracula is a thinly-veiled caricature of Irving’ and ‘Stoker's Dracula has nothing to do with Irving’ which allows for Irving to have been just one of the character's many real-world ancestors.

I spotted one actual error, which is that Miller insists Dracula's famous cape comes only from film adaptations and is not mentioned in the novel. But unless we want to argue that a cape is meaningfully different from a cloak, these words from Jonathan Harker's journal (12 May, chapter 3) contradict her: "I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over the dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings." In complete fairness to Miller, though, it's quite clear that she would acknowledge the issue straight away, as she does in fact once or twice hold her hands up to her own previously-published erroneous assumptions within this book. She also provides a very helpful annotated bibliography of major publications on Stoker and Dracula, some of which I will certainly be reading. I came away feeling great admiration for both Miller's scholarship and her open style of debate, but wishing she had presented what she knows about Stoker and his novel straightforwardly, rather than in the format of killing canards. Thankfully, elsewhere she has, so I've since acquired a copy of her book Bram Stoker's Dracula: A Documentary Journey into Vampire Country and the Dracula Phenomenon and look forward to reading it.

9. Bram Stoker (1897), Dracula

So it was fairly inevitable in the light of the other reading I'd done this year - especially Makt Myrkranna (LJ / DW) and Miller's book - that I would feel the urge to Go Back To The Text; and this feeling was only intensified by the approach of our DracSoc trip to Whitby in September (LJ / DW). I read Dracula first when I was nine, and reviewed it here on my last read in 2004: LJ / DW. I find some aspects of that review a bit cringeworthy now, feeling that it largely presents a lot of very obvious and widely-recognised points as though they were original observations. But then again, I had certainly had much less exposure to other people's writing and discussion about Dracula then than I have now, my friends at the time seemed to like it, and it's a very early example of me reviewing anything at all online. I didn't start doing it regularly and systematically until 2007, and the fact that one of the occasions before then when I was inspired to do it was after reading Dracula says quite a lot about how much the novel has always meant to me.

I enjoyed the re-read, and it certainly enhanced my trip to Whitby to have those sections fresh in my mind. I was struck throughout by Bram's facility for descriptive prose, and particularly liked the newspaper account of the storm as it brews in the prelude to the arrival of the Demeter. I also appreciated his ability to capture plausibly the voices of women. I commented on the strength of Mina's character in my last review, but here I mean rather things like the tone of her and Lucy's letters to one another, Lucy's internal thoughts as her mysterious illness increases and Mina's sensible, clear-headed pragmatism throughout. I don't mean to claim that Bram is a great feminist or his women perfect literary creations - in particular, Mina's description of herself as unclean and dramatic requests to be put out of her misery should she become a vampire come across very much as the stereotypical melodramatic and self-sacrificing Victorian female heroine. But I just mean it's better than you might expect for a late-Victorian male writer, and Bram deserves the credit for that. I was also surprised by how quickly Dracula leaves London once the vampire-hunters start seriously invading his lairs, which slightly undermines his characterisation as the ultimate demonic enemy. Within a day of snarling out his famous line at the house in Piccadilly that "My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side", he is on a ship out of there, so that the line falls a bit flat really in retrospect. Meanwhile, with my Hammer lenses on, I enjoyed the moments when their various crystallisations of the novel suddenly flared up on the page, and indeed spotted one I hadn't really taken on board before: that even as late as The Satanic Rites of Dracula, when you would think the novel had entirely been left behind, the way Jane (Valerie Van Ost) experiences Dracula's approach in the form of a mist billowing under her door while she lies helpless on the bed, unable to escape, is actually very directly based on how he gets into Mina's room in Seward's asylum in the novel.

But the main thing that happened on this read, and which I had certainly never noticed before, is that I found myself seeing a nexus of Classical references woven into the book, and indeed enough of them for it to be worth writing a paper on the topic. This is very exciting, because having enjoyed the World Dracula Congress which I attended in Dublin in 2016 (LJ / DW) and knowing that another is coming up in Brașov this October, I had been increasingly thinking that it would be really nice to attend the next one as a presenter rather than just a listener. Well, now I've found my topic and indeed have got far enough with developing the idea to have submitted an abstract to the conference committee (which I'm currently waiting to hear on). I won't say too much about it here, as it's a separate matter from an ordinary book review, and besides I don't want to give too many details of my argument away before the actual conference. But a simple and typical example of the sort of stuff I've been collecting is represented by this little speech from Van Helsing:
Let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India, even in the Chersonese; and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even is he, and the peoples fear him at this day. He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar.
There, Bram is situating Dracula within a frame of reference which explicitly extends to antiquity, although of course only alongside a whole symphony of other cultural resonances. My point is essentially going to be that we wouldn't want to isolate the Classical references from the rest of the mix, but since they are there they are worth exploring and understanding properly - and while people have spent a lot of time examining Stoker's use of Eastern European history and folklore, personal knowledge of Whitby and London etc., no-one has really pulled together the Classical references and shown what they contribute to the novel as a whole and the characterisation of Dracula in particular. I've got about 25 in all, scattered fairly evenly through the novel - some straightforward and explicit like the one I've included here, others more allusive, and others still quite fundamental and structural. Anyway, I am enjoying pursuing and thinking about them all HUGELY, and assuming that my paper is accepted will probably be banging on about this topic quite a lot more over the next few months as I steer my leisure reading in its service. You have been warned!

10. Charles Dickens (2009) Complete Ghost Stories (Wordsworth Classics edition; editor unnamed).

Finally, this was my Christmas reading. I had read M.R. James' full oeuvre the Christmas before (LJ / DW), so wanted something in the same vein but not actually James, and Dickens seemed the obvious choice. I read parts of it on a train to Göttingen, looking out over wooded valleys and light driving snow, and finished it on New Year's Eve in the somewhat chilly garret of my sister's Georgian house, listening to fireworks going off all around me - all of which (except perhaps the fireworks) seemed extremely appropriate. You can see the full table of contents via Amazon's look inside function, but I will confess that I skipped 'A Christmas Carol', on the grounds of having read it at least twice already. Several of the earlier stories in particular are actually extracted from ongoing serials such as The Pickwick Papers, rather than having been written as stand-alone stories as such.

Generally I enjoyed the collection hugely, and one of its pleasures was the organisation of most of the content into chronological order, starting in 1837 with The Queer Chair and finishing in 1866 with The Signalman (a lot of the remainder of the book after this actually consists of tongue-in-cheek meta-commentary on the standard tropes of ghost stories, rather than straightforward stories per se). In broad terms, the earlier stories show a greater interest in exploring the capacities of language, repeatedly delighting the reader with descriptions which are just perfect for and evocative of whatever is at hand, yet always original and surprising. They lean towards the moralistic, though, in a way that can sometimes strike a modern reader as rather sickly and cloying. The later stories, by contrast, are perhaps simpler in their language, but more complex in their morality - edges are greyer now, and there is less of a sense that Dickens wants to convey a Lesson. In other words, there's plenty of pleasure and value to be had throughout, though of different kinds.

My least favourite story was 'The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain', which read like an attempt to recreate the success of 'A Christmas Carol' five years later, with a similar central motif of a self-centred elderly man learning to be a better person after supernatural intervention. But this one certainly did suffer from cloying morality without ever offering anything of the seasonal good cheer also inherent in 'A Christmas Carol'. My most favourite, after giving each entry a fair hearing, was still 'The Signalman', for its masterful portrait of the human psyche under the strain of isolation and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. There's a good reason why that one was selected for the BBC's annual ghost story adaptations in the '70s. The most surprising moment, though, came in the middle of 'The Ghosts of the Mail', in which the narrator's somewhat inebriated uncle, walking late at night through the street of Edinburgh, comes across some abandoned mail-coaches, and experiences visions of the eighteenth-century cads, adventurers and damsels who once travelled in them. The story unfolds of a distressed young lady who is clearly being abducted by her male fellow travellers, and whom the uncle (now fully absorbed into his own hallucination) resolves to rescue. Once the coach stops and everything erupts into actual sword-play, though, this happens:
At this very moment, the gentleman in sky-blue turning round, and seeing the young lady with her face uncovered, vented an exclamation of rage and jealousy, and, turning his weapon against her beautiful bosom, pointed a thrust at her heart, which caused my uncle to utter a cry of apprehension that made the building ring. The lady stepped lightly aside, and snatching the young man's sword from his hand, before he had recovered his balance, drove him to the wall, and running it through him, and the panelling, up to the very hilt, pinned him there, hard and fast. It was a splendid example.
One of Xena Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer's literary ancestors there!

OK, I did it. That is 2017's books all written up. That doesn't mean I'm quite at the top of my pile - I still have six 2017 films to do, besides another three already for 2018 and one book. But getting completely up to date is looking more achievable right now that it has for a long time. That is a good feeling.

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28. I, Monster (1971), dir. Stephen Weeks

This is an Amicus version of Jekyll and Hyde, and one of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee's 24(ish - it depends how you count) film pairings. It isn't generally very highly regarded, largely because of problems stemming from its production context. Writer/producer Milton Subotsky had managed to convince himself that he could produce a 3D effect on the cheap by keeping the camera constantly panning from left to right, but that turned out not to be true, and meanwhile the tussles over that took everyone's eyes off the core issues of plot and characterisation. Despite all that, [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 and I both felt on re-watching that it's not as bad as people often tend to suggest. It has some really good sets and locations which are often very nicely photographed. Cushing is as crisp and professional as ever, and Lee's physical transformations into Blake (this production's name for Hyde) are excellent - although I'm afraid I felt that in his 'straighter' scenes as Marlowe (this production's name for Jekyll) he was rather dialling it in. The story also tries to engage directly and explicitly with the Freudian implications of the Jekyll / Hyde motif, although unfortunately the way that comes out isn't very logically coherent. Marlowe is supposed to realise that his potion is doing the same thing to all of his subjects, despite radically different results, but it also seems clear from other dialogue that what it is actually doing is destroying the super-ego in some people and the id in others - which isn't 'the same thing' at all. The behaviour of his Blake isn't consistent either. Sometimes he seems utterly self-confident and to take full pleasure in his crimes, whereas other times he is shamed when people laugh at his experience or seems guilty about what he has done - and it's not at all clear what make the difference in each case. In short, the script needed another edit for consistency and clarity, but I guess all the 3D kerfuffle is why it didn't get it.

29. The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), dir. Alan Gibson

Seen a few times before, obviously, and reviewed in full here (LJ / DW). Rather like Scars of Dracula, I know it's one of the weaker films in the Hammer Dracula series, and as such I can tend to slip into thinking of it in the abstract as 'not very good'. But it is still a Hammer Dracula film, of course, so the effect when I actually watch it is usually to be pleasantly surprised. I do especially like the whole D.D. Denham business magnate set-up, which is absolutely logically what Dracula would do in a modern setting. Peter Cushing's confrontation scenes with his old academic pal Dr Julian Keeley (Freddie Jones) are very good as well, offering an extremely believable and well-conveyed sequence of stages of realisation and emotion on both sides as Keeley's story comes out. In fact, now I come to think of it, there is something both quite M.R. Jamesian and quite Tom Lehrer-esque about Keeley's character, as an academic happy to turn a blind eye to the dark implications of his work in return for the temptations of unlimited funding - not to mention disturbing resonances for those of us trying to negotiate the profession in the present day. It also has some beautiful outdoor location footage of London, and especially of Peter Cushing walking past the Albert Hall.

Albert Hall.JPG

30. Valley of the Eagles (1951), dir. Terence Young

Taped off the telly and watched because it has Christopher Lee in it. This is pretty early in his career, but it's a very characteristic role for him. He's a police detective, operating as a right-hand man to an inspector named Peterson, and as such gets to be clipped and a little bit intimidating while wearing a fedora and pointing a gun at people. Sadly, however, he works in Stockholm (where the story begins), but after about half an hour of screen-time it develops into a chase up towards the Finnish border which he does not come along for, and so his character is absent from the rest of the film. The main tension at the heart of the story is essentially civilisation vs. nature. Though it starts off as a crime investigation into the theft of a crucial piece from a cutting-edge scientific invention (hence the involvement of the police characters), this is only really a ploy to get the scientist whose work has been stolen up into Lapland with a group of reindeer-herders, attempting to track it down. He himself says he has half-forgotten about the equipment by the time a few days have passed, and instead he is drawn into a world of reliance on reindeers and fending off wolves, where he loses his glasses (very symbolic!) and falls in love with a beautiful young Laplander woman. The fairly conventional story of love overcoming a cultural gulf which unfolds from here was given a rather icky edge for me by some dialogue about him needing to be convinced that the Laplanders aren't 'savages', and having this question resolved to his satisfaction when he comes across the young woman reading the Bible to the children in her care. I found that all too reminiscent of white colonialist missionary attitudes to countries full of non-white people. Otherwise, there's some nice footage of snowy landscapes, but much of this actually consisted of pre-existing film shot by the National Geographic Society - so you might as well just watch a nature documentary, really.

The next item on my to-review list is a little bit special and I think needs a dedicated entry of its own, so I will stop there.

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The lovely [personal profile] lady_lugosi1313 spotted this book in a charity shop and kindly bought it for me, and I read it mainly while on last year's DracSoc holiday to the Czech Republic (LJ / DW). Other editions of the same book are entitled Vampire and Werewolf Stories, which is considerably more accurate, given that it actually alternates stories about the two throughout. The table of contents runs thus:

'Dracula' (an extract) by Bram Stoker
'The Werewolf' by Barbara Leonie Picard
'The Vampire of Kaldenstein' by Frederick Cowles
'Freeze-up' by Anthony Masters
'Drink my Blood' by Richard Matheson
'Terror in the Tatras' by Winifred Finlay
'Day Blood', by Roger Zelazny
'Getting Dead', by William F. Nolan
'The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire' by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
'The Werewolf' (an extract) by Clemence Housman
'Mama Gone' by Jane Yolen
'Revelations in Black' by Carl Jacobi
'Gabriel Ernest' by Saki (H.H. Munro)
'The Horror at Chilton Castle' by Joseph Payne Brennan
'Count Dracula' by Woody Allen
'The Werewolf' by Angela Carter
'The Drifting Snow' by August Derleth
'Howl' by Alan Durant

Obviously I'd read some before, and I skipped the extract from Dracula (which covers Lucy's staking) for that reason, but generally I just re-read anyway, on the grounds that it had been a while with most of the others. And although I don't generally tend to seek out werewolf stories, I was quite glad of their inclusion, a) because I hadn't read any of those, b) because many of them were pretty good and c) because it later turned out to put me in a much better position to appreciate Gail-Nina's talk on werewolves at the DracSoc Whitby weekend in September (LJ / DW). I'm not going to try to comment on every story in the collection, especially since some were fairly average and forgettable, but these are some responses to those which most struck me:

'The Werewolf' by Barbara Leonie Picard - this was the one I was most glad of having read when listening to Gail-Nina's talk. It's basically a translation / retelling of this medieval French werewolf legend, and as such represents the genre in an early form (not, of course, the earliest - ask Petronius). Unlike many later werewolf stories, it says nothing about how people become werewolves: the main character just is one, and his condition isn't affected by the moon either. Rather, he goes off as a wolf for several days a week, but can only become a man again when he puts on his clothes - very symbolic! It's a simple tale, simply told, but very much worth reading if you're interested in the evolution of werewolf mythology.

'The Vampire of Kaldenstein' by Frederick Cowles - this story would have been fine if it had been written any time before 1897. Instead, it was written in 1938, and yet is nothing more than a collection of staple Gothic horror tropes. I ended up feeling profoundly irritated both by the fact that it had been written and by the fact that I had wasted half an hour of my life reading it.

'Drink my Blood' by Richard Matheson - I've read this one before, but I really like it and am glad to have the opportunity to say so here! It was published in 1951, and I don't know of any earlier example of story about someone who is inspired by vampire fiction to want to become a vampire themselves. In this case, our hero is a young boy called Jules who sees Universal's Dracula at the cinema (it has to be theirs because of the publication date), and thereafter becomes fixated on trying to become a vampire himself. In fact, in this respect it is a forerunner of Aickman's 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal', which I wrote about yesterday, and which likewise (on one level anyway!) presents a heroine whose willingness to become a vampire is probably strongly influenced by Lord Byron and his ilk. Matheson is also a little ambiguous about Jules' fate, but unlike Aickman he allows his character to recognise the range of possible outcomes for him, giving him a moment of stark horror when it occurs to him for the first time that the bat which he has let loose from the local zoo may not actually be Count Dracula after all: "Suddenly his mind was filled with a terrible clarity. He knew that he was lying half-naked on garbage and letting a flying bat drink his blood." He also uses an omniscient narrative voice to specify in the closing lines that the bat really was the Count, now freed and restored to human form thanks to Jules' blood. Whether Jules then simply dies, or dies and becomes a vampire, is a matter for the reader. As for Matheson, his tale of a kid inspired to irrational actions by vampire fiction was proved remarkably prescient by the case of the 'Gorbals Vampire' three years later - though that is generally considered to have been inspired by horror comics, rather than films.

'Day Blood', by Roger Zelazny - a nice little tale with a twist from 1985. We follow a male character who seems at first to be a human vampire-protector, but proves in fact to be their apex predator, keeping them alive so that he can feed on them in spite of their attempts to ward him off with a sprig of mistletoe and a statue of Cernunnos. It probably seemed cleverer on initial publication than it does now, but it's still worth a read.

'The Werewolf' (an extract) by Clemence Housman - an extract from an 1896 novel which is probably the best werewolf story in this collection. It is basically a chase to the death through the snow, with a female werewolf pursued by a human hunter bent on revenge for the way she has seduced his brother. The way Housman captures the wild landscape, the relentlessness of the pursuit, the growing pain as the human hunter ploughs onwards and his steely determination to see through his goal is beautiful. I wouldn't cast aside the full novel if it came my way.

'Mama Gone' by Jane Yolen - a strangely affecting story from 1991 which I hadn't come across before, about a little girl whose mother dies in childbirth and soon begins plaguing the village from beyond the grave. It had quite a lot of raw stuff about the family processing their loss, which certainly struck home with me. Indeed, that's what the story is 'really' about, under the cloak of vampirism - a little girl coming to terms with her mother's death, until it moves from a thing of horror to a memory of love. All this culminates powerfully in the girl going to the mother's grave at night to confront the grey corpse who rises from it, and to reach across the gulf between living and dead to ask her to stop harming them. It's a leap of faith which could as easily end in disaster as success, but the power of their family bond cuts through. The mother hears her plea, gives herself over to the sun and fades to become the Good Dead, rather than the Bad.

'The Werewolf' by Angela Carter - short but good, as you would expect from the author. It's basically Little Red Riding Hood, except that the grandmother is also the wolf. The young girl triumphs.

That'll do for this collection, I think. Good to read, and good to mull over here. Another one to sit on my shelf of vampire short story collections... :-)

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I haven't caught up on unwritten film reviews yet, but this evening I feel like taking on a book. I read this particular book while on holiday in Cyprus last April with the lovely [personal profile] rosamicula, and enjoyed it so much that I quickly started having to ration it out, as I had only brought one other book with me and was afraid of running out of reading material altogether. It is a collection of what its author referred to as 'strange stories', and the full table of contents runs like this:

'The Swords'
'The Real Road to the Church'
'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal'
'The Hospice'
'The Same Dog'
'Meeting Mr Millar'
'The Clock Watcher'

All are excellent. They generally feature unexplained and possibly supernatural events, as experienced by a character who either speaks in the first person or whose experiences are the primary focus of the narration. As such, the reader isn't usually given any authoritative 'explanation' of what has happened, and thus gets to feel the same pleasant thrills of mystery and unease as the main character. The difference, of course, is that unlike the character, the reader has the power to succumb to the allure of the story, reject it entirely, mull over multiple possible explanations or home in one of their preference. Most are set in what seems broadly to be the UK at the time of writing (some are specific about it, others less so), but 'The Real Road to the Church' takes us to rural France, 'Niemandswasser' to the 19th-century Austrian Empire and 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' to northern Italy c. 1820.

It was through this latter story that I first encountered Aickman, and it is the one which made me want to buy this book and read more of his work. I'm pleased to have done so, and may well want to explore further amongst his oeuvre in the future - but for the time being, this remains the stand-out story of the collection to me, and the one I want to focus in on here. It happens (of course!) to be a vampire story, and I read it first when I was about 12 or 13 years old in The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories (ed. Alan Ryan). As the title suggests, it presents a first-person narration, told in the form of diary entries written by a young girl while she is travelling around Italy with her parents on some sort of Grand Tour. We join them as they are arriving into Ravenna, where they stay with a contessa and her family, and the story finishes in Rimini, by which time our young narrator is in quite another world.

At face value, what happens is that the contessa holds a party in her English visitors' honour, where our narrator (who is never named) meets a mysterious man whom she considers "an Adonis! an Apollo!", who perceives great depths in her teenage soul, hints at strange and magical things and tells her they will meet again. Thereafter, he calls to her from afar or comes to her in dreams, speaking to her of love, while she begins displaying all the classic signs of being preyed upon by a vampire. By the end of the story she has become very weak and has a wound on her neck which never heals up, but she is only eager to depart her mortal life, escape her stultifying parents and meet her destiny. Looking down from her bedroom balcony into the town-square at Rimini, filled with wolves gazing up at her, she records:
I smiled at the wolves. Then I crossed my hands on my little bosom and curtsied. They will be prominent among my new people. My blood will be theirs, and theirs mine.
So, she is about to become a vampire. The story ends at this point because, as she says, "I doubt if I shall write any more. I do not think I shall have any more to say."

That, at least, is how I read it as a 12 / 13-year-old, and believe me I was totally there for a story about a young girl saved from her tedious life by a mysterious and powerful vampire at that age. The face-value reading is very pleasant indeed, and quite a good enough story in its own right. Now that I'm an adult, though, I know about unreliable narrators, and I can see that there are at least four major possible readings of this story:
  1. The face-value one: there was a man at the party, he really was a vampire, he really has been turning our narrator into his vampire bride throughout the course of the story, and after the last diary entry that process will be completed and she will go to join him and the wolves as the queen of his supernatural kingdom.
  2. There was a man at the party and he talked to her for a while, but he wasn't a vampire. Everything supernatural is entirely in her head. Possibly she is using it to help her cope with any number of other traumatic experiences, including the onset of menstruation, her own sexual awakening more generally (if read this way this definitely includes same-sex attraction towards the contessa's daughter), sexual assault, physical illness and / or mental illness.
  3. There wasn't even a man at the party at all. Literally everything was in her head.
  4. There was a man all right, he was a vampire and he has been coming to her in her dreams or in a mist to drink her blood as she believes. But he isn't going to make her into his vampire bride. She is just going to die.

I also know a lot more about intertexts than I did when I was 12 / 13, and indeed rather a lot more about Lord Byron and his circle: especially thanks to the DracSoc trip to Lake Geneva in 2016 and some of the reading I did in preparation for it (LJ / DW). So I'm now in a much better position to appreciate the significance of the narrator's interest in Lord Byron. This crops up repeatedly in some of the earlier entries, where we learn that the narrator is very much excited to be in the town where Byron is currently living (he lived in Ravenna from 1819 to '21). We're left in no doubt as to how she feels about him, either:
How well I understand the universal ennui that possesses our neighbour, Lord Byron! I, a tiny slip of a girl, feel, at least in this particular, at one with the great poet!
So, our narrator is of a strongly romantic bent. More specifically, she is clearly familiar with Byron's The Giaour, since she refers to him as such as one point, and thus must know about literary vampires through that at least, if not also through Polidori's The Vampyre (though this isn't mentioned specifically). In other words, I see now that Aickman is playing in that same world, has by doing so provided all the material needed to support the 'it's all in her head' readings, and has certainly left the story open to them quite deliberately by stopping it when he does and not confirming the face-value, vampire queen reading.

This is a story which has grown with me, then. I already loved it when I first read it and the face-value reading was all I saw - enough for it to stay with me and niggle at me and prompt me to look it up again and find more by the same author. But it has rewarded that instinct many times over by proving to have so much more to it when I returned as an adult reader. There are many, many vampire short stories, and I have read a lot of them, but I'm pretty sure I will name this unhestitatingly as my favourite whenever I am asked in the future.

One further note: having read Tom Holland's The Vampyre: the secret history of Lord Byron (LJ / DW), it naturally occurred to me to wonder whether the mysterious man at the party actually was Lord Byron at his most Lord Ruthven-esque. In fact, though, that is one of the few possibilities Aickman explicitly rules out, by having his narrator encounter Lord Byron (and Shelley with him) out riding their horses a few days after the party. She is still quite star-struck at seeing him, but she also notes that both looked "considerably older than I had expected and Lord Byron considerably more corpulent (as well as being quite grey-headed, though I believe only at the start of his life's fourth decade)." So, not the Adonis-like, Apollo-like mysterious secret lover she had met at the party, then; and of course the real human poet falls far short of the romantic image she has constructed for him. Of course.

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