Serial Writing

One of the things I have noticed reading The Hound of the Baskervilles recently is how obvious it is that Conan Doyle wrote it for serial publication. Many of the chapters have cliffhanger endings – none more notably than the famous quote “Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” – and all of the chapters are quite short, as if the reader’s attention span was on the limited side. I’m not sure how many items were published in each edition of The Strand Magazine, so it may have been necessary for writers to ensure that their work stood out and encourage readers to buy the next issue and find out what happened.

Serial publication was a common method used during the Victorian era, when many novels were published in three volumes and were often expensive. By printing instalments in magazines, authors could reach a much wider audience, who did not need to spend a great deal of money on literature. Given that there was no such thing as television or radio, many evenings were spent in reading aloud stories and articles from magazines and newspapers; it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that different members of the family read different stories out to each other. It’s what I would do.

Some authors, such as Charles Dickens, had the means to publish their own work serially, as Dickens owned and ran the magazines All The Year Round and Household Words, which also published the works of his friends Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins. However, the majority of other authors were not so lucky and had to fight for publication in an extremely competitive world, so their stories had to be exciting and end in a way that left the editors demanding the next instalment.

Obviously, with the advent of cinema and television, serial writing turned into another form of drama; soap operas and weekly thrillers all required audiences to return to find out what happens next. Cheaper books and fewer fiction magazines also led to serial publication dying a death. Stephen King tried to revitalise it with the initial publication of The Green Mile, but it didn’t work out too well, and the novel sold better in a one volume edition. As far as I’m aware, nobody else has tried it since.

The techniques of serial writing are always useful; if it keeps readers turning the pages and interested in your story, it can’t be a bad thing. Just try not to include the footprints of a gigantic hound.


You’ve Seen the Film, Now Read the Dratted Book!

There’s another version of Murder on the Orient Express doing the rounds as I write this – it’s been out a while and if it’s not yet out on DVD it soon will be – and I’ve just got round to reading The Hound of the Baskervilles after having seen at least three different film versions. Although I’m fairly sure I’ve commented before (if not on here then on social media) about Hollywood seemingly running out of ideas and filming the same things over and over, I do wonder if it’s possible to enjoy a novel if you’ve only ever seen the films.

I’ve been quite lucky in one sense, because I had read both Hound of the Baskervilles and Murder on the Orient Express before I remember seeing the films (thanks to my gran being a classic crime lover) but as both of these have been filmed numerous times I expect that I am very much in the minority. When I did see the films, I saw what have become classic versions – Peter Cushing as Holmes and Peter Ustinov as Poirot – so again, I was very lucky. (I felt even luckier when I saw the Basil Rathbone version of Hound of the Baskervilles – he’s still my favourite Holmes).

Even now, if I find out that a novel is being filmed (or has been filmed) I try and read the book first. I’ve put off seeing films for years so that I can get the book read – I couldn’t watch A Passage to India for years because I did the book at A level and simply couldn’t face puzzling out what happened at the Malabar Caves. Great Expectations was another one it took me years to get round to, but that was because I wanted to throttle Pip every time he appeared on screen.

However, there is a glaring exception to this general rule of thumb, and that is John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps. I’ve now seen three different versions of this (Robert Donat, Kenneth Moore and Rupert Penry-Jones) and still haven’t got round to reading the book. I’m not sure now whether I want to; there are such differences between each of the movies that if it doesn’t appear in the book I will probably feel a bit let down – and the book isn’t the thickest.

So my question remains unanswered. If you’ve seen a film – especially one that’s a remake of an earlier version – can you enjoy the book afterwards?

Gothic but not Gothic – Again

A bit of a variation on this theme actually. When I previously wrote about Alias Grace, I considered it to be a novel that covered many Gothic themes but without being considered a Gothic novel. This time I’m swapping things around and looking at a novel which many consider to be Gothic but which I don’t believe is actually Gothic at all. That novel is Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic The Hound of the Baskervilles.

It is very easy to see why many people consider this to be a Gothic novel. It does have certain – shall we say – spooky elements; the bleak and desolate moors, a large spectral hound and a family curse. However, there are important elements missing which I think are quite crucial to a Gothic novel; these are the large house which itself plays a role in the plot, and a damsel in distress, which in turn necessitates a brave hero to defeat the villain.

In Conan Doyle’s hands, everything changes. Baskerville Hall, although mentioned and described, plays little role in the plot with most of the action taking place on or around the moors. There is no damsel in distress – the family curse affects Sir Henry Baskerville who, by modern standards, may be a bit of a drip was at the time probably quite an average young man and by no means considered sickly or pathetic. The hero of the piece is, of course, Holmes, but he is hardly a Gothic hero by any means.

I think it’s the moorland setting that allows it to be compared with (say) Wuthering Heights, which is a Gothic classic, or the “spectral” hound which definitely adds a spooky feel. Unfortunately, since Holmes is involved, there is a much less supernatural explanation to both the dog and the family curse, depleting any further Gothic element that the novel may have had.

Perhaps this is why, much as I love Holmes and much as I love Gothics, this doesn’t seem to fit right. It’s been part of my Gothic Book Group for a while, but unlike some of the other books we’ve looked at, I’ve really struggled to write about this one. It’s taken me some time to come to terms with the fact that actually, it’s not a Gothic at all – it’s just a very good book.

Mummies Are More Fun in Egypt

A pleasant afternoon was spent a while ago watching a classic Hammer horror film – The Mummy’s Shroud, made in 1967. To my mind, it’s testament of how times have changed; when it was made, it would have been at least a 15 certificate and certainly not shown on telly before the watershed. These days, it’s barely a PG and on the telly at one o’clock in the afternoon. The offspring, although not quite a teenager, deemed it to be completely not scary, and I have to agree.

One thing, though; in comparing The Mummy’s Shroud with its predecessor, The Mummy (which starred Christopher Lee but is essentially the same story if truth be told), keeping the action in Egypt was a smart move. For one thing, it makes the murder investigation seem a little more plausible. The bulk of the action is set in 1920, at a time when Egyptology was still very fashionable but before the great Egyptian craze that was sparked by Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun. It’s a fairly standard plot, yet another variation on the curse of the Pharaoh (i.e. death and destruction fall on all who desecrate the sacred tombs) but with the variation of the curse actually being embroidered on the late Pharaoh’s shroud.

However, unlike the earlier movie, The Mummy’s Shroud is set in a town just outside of Cairo – near enough to the sea for boat passage to England to be available, but near enough the desert for lost tombs to be a feasible possibility and within searching distance. It’s also noticeable that at no point in the movie do pyramids feature (and I was careful to check the scenery as well) and there is a wonderful cosmopolitan atmosphere, a mix of Arabs and westerners mingling next to the relics in the museum. And I don’t just mean the cleaner.

I really think that keeping the action in Egypt is a great thing for this film; the inability of the characters to return to England (at the police’s insistence) adds to the sense of claustrophobia which is increased by the tomb and the villainous fortune teller. In places, it’s genuinely creepy but it’s soon mitigated by being really quite daft. It’s a great film, with a suitably villainous hero and a reasonably justifiable villain. It’s just a shame that the original story didn’t really merit the sequels it spawned.

You Just Can’t Kill A Good Character

I’ve been reading Sherlock Holmes again; but not one by Arthur Conan Doyle. In common with many other great characters, such as Hercule Poirot and James Bond, modern authors are using Holmes and Watson to create new adventure stories, with varying degrees of success. Rather fortunately, the one that I’ve just finished* was a cracking good story with more than a few nods to previous (and much enjoyed) adventures. However, not all are like that and it has to be said that some of these more modern renditions have met with very mixed reviews.

Indeed, some writers have met with difficulties if they are using the characters without the permission of the original author’s estate who can, if necessary, prevent publication if they do not believe that the author’s vision has been treated properly or – being cynical – if they will not receive any royalties from the character’s use. It’s not new for a writer’s estate to be obstructive; Mrs Stoker stood in the way of the release of the German film Nosferatu back in the 1920s, because she believed – probably with some merit – that it was a direct rip off of her husband’s best known work.

All of this said – and as I have mentioned previously – some characters you just can’t keep down. Dacre Stoker is writing a prequel to his great-great-uncle’s novel and has already penned a sequel of sorts – both of which were quite unnecessary in my opinion. Ian Fleming’s estate has approved a number of James Bond sequels from distinguished writers, including Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver, and recently Agatha Christie’s estate have approved a new Poirot novel. On the one hand, this is great – I love a good Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot story, and finding one I’ve not read yet does give me a thrill – but on the other hand, it’s not really original is it?

What would be really wonderful is if more fantastic, larger than life characters could be created to captivate a reader’s mind so much it inspires sequels a hundred years later. I’m fairly sure in the fullness of time we will get further adventures of (say) Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I would really like to see some new and interesting characters grab the popular imagination. It’s been done before – it can be done again. And in the meantime, I’ll just keep reading all my favourites.

* James Lovegrove’s The Labyrinth of Death published by Titan Books. There are a few books in the series, but this is the only one I’ve read so far. I’m told some of them aren’t great.

In the Country of the Blind is the One Eyed Man Really King?

One thing that I’ve learned from reading Day of the Triffids is that being sighted may not necessarily be the best thing. Admittedly, you’re aware of the location of triffids, so are less likely to become their next meal – but you’re also just as likely to find yourself at the mercy of a blind person intent on using your sight to keep himself safe. This happens a number of times in the novel, where sighted people are basically used as minders, to find food and shelter and protect their blind charges from triffid attacks.

This led me to thinking whether having sight in a world where it is a minority is actually a good thing. It forces one to consider arguments about disability very carefully; just because deaf, blind or otherwise disabled people may be in the minority is that necessarily a bad thing, or do they have other advantages over “normal” people? (I put “normal” in inverted commas, because there is no real definition of normal and I don’t really want to get into an “us and them” argument). Clearly, some of the blind people in Wyndham’s novel were clever enough to see a way to manage their situation – admittedly by slavery – and it’s also apparent that not all of the sighted people are adjusted enough to make the best of their terrible situation.

It’s an interesting thought that in the land of the blind (or deaf, or wheeled or whatever), the fully able many not necessarily be king. There are disadvantages to being fully abled in that the blind are well adjusted to working in the dark; the deaf have adapted to noisy environments; and so on. I don’t know whether it’s true that some disabled people have improved function in other senses (i.e. the blind have better hearing, or the deaf a better sense of smell) but I can see how that would work. It’s a fascinating way to consider how being disabled may not actually be such a terrible thing after all.

A Darwinian Parable

Early on in John Wyndham’s best known novel, The Day of the Triffids, one of the characters suggests that the triffids had the potential to become the dominant species: having adapted to a sightless existence, in the event of humanity becoming blind, the triffids would become top predator. It is, in my opinion, a clumsy way to explain your plot, but since we are already aware of the fate that has befallen the majority of humanity, I suppose Wyndham gets away with it – just. What is less clear is the link between the triffids and the “meteor” shower which blinds everyone; it may be a combined Soviet experiment in biological warfare, or it may be that the triffids are simply exploiting the new ecological niche.

If I’m honest, I’ve never really thought of John Wyndham as an environmental writer, but its clear in this novel that he is concerned about the relationship between humans and their environment, and in particular in the fact that many people at that time were completely disconnected with the means of food and clothing production – Bill Masen, the narrator, himself admits that he had no idea where his food or clothing came from. It is this disconnect that many dystopian writers manipulate to create the horror in their worldview. I do wonder if people living in cities today would manage any better – I like to think I would, but I’m never sure.

The triffids themselves are quite fascinating, occupying a space somewhere between plant and animal. They look like plants and reproduce like plants, through seeds – although ninety five percent of the seeds are sterile, which is probably a good thing – yet they are ambulant, have a sting, apparently communicate and are carnivorous. Now I know there are carnivorous plants, and plants that sting and apparently communicate with others of their species – but they’re not ambulant. So Wyndham uses language somewhere between botany and agriculture when writing about them. It’s quite fascinating.

Ultimately, though, it’s a Darwinian parable. If evolution is about survival of the fittest, given a change in the environment, it’s very possible that humanity may no longer be top of the tree, as it were. Post-apocalyptic fiction relies on showing the adaptability of humankind, but it’s very clear from Wyndham’s novel that people simply haven’t evolved to deal with triffids.

Carnivorous, But Not Homicidal

I love carnivorous plants, but I’m hopelessly brown thumbed. I really have no idea how to keep plants and could probably kill an artificial one if it was left in my care long enough. So I try to keep my botanic interests to reading about plants rather than going too near them – for their safety, rather than mine.

So far as I can tell, there are three main types of carnivorous plant – the pitcher, the fly trap and the sundew, which has sticky fronds to trap insects. Almost all of them feed on insects, although I’m told that fly traps are rather partial to cat food if all else fails. Admittedly, they don’t come from outer space, try to eat their owners or wander the streets looking for prey, but why should they when the prey comes to them? There’s an evolutionary question as to why some plants are carnivorous and the majority aren’t, which I simply do not have the answer to, and I’m sure a talented writer could create a plot around it.

I’m surprised that carnivorous plants don’t play a greater role in modern science fiction. I mean, outside of Wyndham’s triffids and Audrey Two from Little Shop of Horrors, I can’t think of any plants that aren’t the anonymous lianas that wrap around the heroine in a pulp movie and drag her into the undergrowth so she can be rescued by the hero – I’m fairly sure that was Flash Gordon, but I can’t swear to it. There’s a carnivorous tree in an obscure horror story that I’ve managed to track down but that’s pretty much it. Fiction has rather more vampiric plants, but they’re not quite the same thing – at least, I don’t think so. There’s a fabulous short story called Lost in a Pyramid which features a vampiric plant that feeds on a human’s energies, rather than blood. I really must get round to re-reading that one day. And, of course, poisonous plants are everywhere – which reminds me to re-read Rappaccini’s Daughter soon as well.

I think the difference between these plants, triffids and Audrey Two is that the latter pair are actively homicidal. They have a plan which involves seeking prey rather than just taking advantage of the prey that comes to them. Let’s just hope that in the event of an apocalypse, the carnivorous plants die off as well.

Renoir – La Loge

Let’s get the formalities over with straight away. I loathe this picture. I really, really do not like it. I don’t think it has ever been on a chocolate box, but to me that’s where it belongs. It’s all misty edged and slightly sepia toned and would look really good with magnolia walls and chintz upholstery.

All that to one side – it’s a really interesting painting. The title translates as “The Theatre Box” and shows a glamorous young couple (modelled by the artist’s brother and a model named Nini Lopez)are seated in their box in the theatre, yet neither of them appear to be paying much attention to what’s happening onstage. The woman has lowered her opera glasses, all the better to be seen by onlooking admirers; and he has raised his opera glasses towards the interior of the theatre, obviously seeing who else is watching this play – or not, as the case may be.

In late 19th century Paris, the theatre was as much a place to see and be seen as it was a place to watch dramatic performances. It was a booming business, especially prior to the advent of cinema, and the increasing wealth of the middle classes meant that they could now mix in social arenas from which they were previously excluded. The theatre boxes and balcony seats were the preferred options for “stage door Johnnies”, young men keen to make the acquaintances of the actresses (shall we say). It was also a favourite of glamorous young women in their best dresses to show themselves off to their advantage as the female figure in this painting appears to be doing.

Militant Deafness

I read a paper recently how some academics believe that deaf people should be considered an ethnic or cultural group rather than a disability. There’s certainly an element of tribe and communal spirit within the Deaf world which is very strong – and often rather militant, and not in a pleasant way either. I was appalled to read of a very talented deaf musician who has been sent death threats because she speaks and sings, rather than signs exclusively. Clearly, the senders of these threats haven’t considered how she’s supposed to sign while playing the ukulele, but I’ll move over that. I think there’s a crucial point they’re missing here, which is that she went deaf as a child due to connective tissue problems, so had already learned to speak and to adapt her musicianship to allow her to “hear” through vibrations in the floor.

I’m not a fan of this militant ghettoization, mainly because I can still hear (not well), was educated in mainstream schools and don’t sign very well. I don’t think I’m alone in being someone who has had to learn to be deaf, if you like – I wasn’t born deaf, I started to lose my hearing as a child – and so I’ve grown up talking and playing my records too loud and so on. Why should I be penalised by people within the Deaf community for my upbringing? I understand and appreciate that people who were born Deaf have totally different experiences, but I don’t understand the need to be so divisive? What about hearing children of Deaf parents, or Deaf children of hearing parents – how do they fit into this worldview.

It does remind me a little bit of the radical lesbian feminist movement in the early 1970s. These were women who may not necessarily have been lesbian in the truest sense of the word – that their first choice partners would always have been other women – but have elected to have lesbian relationships for political reasons, i.e. that men are the enemy and heterosexuality reinforces the patriarchal status quo. It’s fundamentalism at the end of the day, and I think all three of my readers know what I think of that.

However, it would be wrong of me to suggest that militant deafness does not exist. It’s a part of the Deaf community and we must live with it, whether or not we agree with it. I feel that deaf people (and their nearest and dearest) ought to learn to sign, but I’m not convinced it ought to be their exclusive method of communication, especially if they are in a predominantly hearing environment (such as a school). It puts incredible pressure on people who have become deaf at a later stage (i.e. having previously heard and learned to speak) to learn to sign in order to be accepted as part of the deaf community. Surely that can’t be right.