A New Hobby

After some badgering by the husband, I’ve got myself a new hobby – as apparently knitting, reading and writing this blog don’t seem to count. Although there was some misunderstanding when I told him what I’d taken up and he wondered where I’d hidden the special equipment – it seems he thought I’d send ENGRAVING and wondered when I’d discovered my artistic talent.

My new hobby is actually GRAVING and is nothing more suspect than looking at old graves, of which the South of England has more than a fair few. I’ve always liked cemeteries anyway so it seemed a natural progression to actually look at some of the headstones and make notes of the graves which caught my attention, either because of the epitaph, the architecture or the occupant.

However, there are a few rules to graving, mostly due to the fact that it’s good manners to behave in a certain way when consorting with the dead, so I set out here a very basic etiquette for any would-be gravers:

1. Please respect where you are. I know this is common sense, but it’s surprising how many people just seem to ignore it. This means don’t sit on the grave (dancing on them is completely verboten, no matter how much you hated the deceased), don’t let children or animals run riot around the graveyard and do not damage the headstone. These are people’s relatives; I’m not sure I would be entirely happy if someone came along and wrote “Kevin Loves Doreen” in permanent marker on my gran’s headstone – so don’t do it. Also, no loud music and no parties. Really, what kind of people would do that in a graveyard?

2. Alongside this goes please respect other people’s beliefs. What I mean is that if you visit a Jewish or Muslim cemetery and you are not of the faith, don’t assume that your ideas are better than theirs. Equally, if you don’t believe in an afterlife, keep that one to yourself as well, especially if a nearby grave happens to have visitors. Most graves are also in churchyards, but don’t let that put you off if you are not of the faith – you won’t burst into flames, I promise you.

3. Do not take rubbings of any gravestone without permission. Keep a notebook and pen and write it down, or in this day and age of mobile telephones, take a photograph. Equally, unless you are personally acquainted with the deceased, don’t leave flowers or any kind of memento – and whatever you do, no matter how dead the flowers are, do not remove anything left by anyone else. It’s not for you to do.

4. Do not attempt to look for a grave if there is a funeral taking place nearby. That’s just rude.

Otherwise – enjoy a nice day out, take some sandwiches (clear up after yourself, obviously) and a thermos and spend a lovely peaceful day outdoors. Makes a change from staring at a screen, doesn’t it?

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Thomas Hardy Sort of Does Gothic

After about four goes, I’ve finally found a novel by Thomas Hardy I actually like – and it’s not one of his well-known ones, although it was mentioned on University Challenge once. Called A Laodicean, it explores the links between old and new money, culture, architecture and the status of women. It has a fantastic villain too – he really is a scheming piece of work, only lacking a moustache to twiddle to achieve perfection. I honestly can’t work out why it’s not more popular than it is.

It also appears to me to contain many Gothic notes, although there is very little about this book that actually puts it in the category of literary Gothic. The most obvious one is the clash between medievalism and modern progress, exemplified by the relationship between Paula Power (the owner of the castle, who inherited her wealth from her railway magnate father) and Charlotte de Stancy, whose ancestors had owned the castle since it was built in the Middle Ages and whose father sold it to pay off gambling debts). Charlotte cares little for her ancestry, preferring to look forward, whereas Paula wishes at one point in the novel that she had such history, telling Somerset that she wished she was a De Stancey.

Throughout the novel, Paula oscillates between medieval romanticism – perhaps best represented by the work of William Morris, which may have been contemporary with Hardy’s writing – and the realities of late Victorian life, represented by the telegraph, the railway – and, perhaps, even her name. This conflict is a key aspect of Gothic literature and Hardy makes no attempt to disguise his use of it to move the plot along. And yet – the novel doesn’t feel like a Gothic; the earlier chapters are set in Wessex in the late summer, and have that golden/russet quality which I always associate with Hardy. I find myself back at the point where I wonder what makes a book Gothic other than critics calling it a Gothic, and I think the canon is a little narrow on this point.

Anyway, I’m just happy – and still slightly surprised – that I’ve actually managed to read a Thomas Hardy novel without wanting to jump off a cliff at the end.

The Original Fly

Ringtones are strange things; while they may be incredibly meaningful to the owner, they are often simply irritating for everyone else. The reason I mention this is because a former work colleague of mine had the voice of the fly/human hybrid screaming “Help me! Help me!” from the 1958 movie (the best in my opinion) as her ringtone, and it drove the rest of us absolutely nuts. She thought it was hilarious.

Anyway, this late 1950s B movie is one of my favourites, in no small part due to the presence of Vincent Price, one of my favourite actors. Gosh he was handsome in his day. Surprisingly, Vincent isn’t the villain of the piece – not that there is one – nor is he really the main character. The plot of the film is familiar – a scientist is experimenting with a matter transportation device and tests it on himself; unfortunately a fly becomes trapped in the transport chamber with him, and their molecules merge – the fly now has a human head and arm, and the scientist has the head and arm of a gigantic fly. Unfortunately, he also has the temperament and instincts of a fly, so as an act of kindness, she crushes the creature under a hydraulic press.

Although the plot is explained during the course of the film, the ending is still quite chilling – the “white headed fly” (i.e. the one with the human head), which has aged in accordance with “fly time” rather than “human time”, is trapped in a spider’s web and the very hungry builder is heading towards his lunch before humans intervene, destroying the web, the spider and the fly.

I’ve seen this film more times than I care to consider and although there’s no overt horror in it (unlike the remakes), there’s definitely a sense of chill about it. It’s partly the interrelationship between the scientist and his increasingly frantic wife, as she desperately searches for the fly so that he can attempt to reverse the accident and finally agrees to crush what remains of her husband in a hydraulic press; it’s partly how her story is simply considered a fabrication and she is insane; and it’s partly the matter of fact way in which the entire story is told. For its age, it’s very well done and demonstrates that one doesn’t need copious amounts of gore to make a good thriller.

Walter Sickert and Jack the Ripper

Walter Sickert’s name has often been linked with that of Britain’s most infamous serial killer – most recently by the efforts of Patricia Cornwell – but the only definitive link between the two is this painting, completed in 1907, called Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom. It was inspired by a room Sickert was lodging in, as his landlady at that time believed that a previous occupant was guilty of the crimes, although this has never been substantiated and the lodger’s identity remains unknown. It’s a suitably dark, gloomy room so it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find there was some truth in the idea.

It has to be said, though, that at this time Sickert was going through a phase of painting scenes linked with murders. Another contemporaneous work was the Camden Town Murders, finished in 1908, which shows a couple in a bedroom – she is naked in bed and he is fully clothed and sitting on the edge of the bed. It is unclear from my viewing whether they are killers or victims – or one of each. The painting’s alternative title, “What Shall We Do For The Rent?” doesn’t offer any clues either.

It is generally considered that the idea Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper is a conspiracy theory based in a fanciful story that first became public in the mid-1970s. It is unfortunate that someone of Patricia Cornwell’s standing and intelligence feels that there is a foundation to this idea; particularly when it is not really substantiated by many other Ripperologists (for want of a better word). For my part, I’m merely happy that the Ripper is dead, which is about the only thing we can say about him with any certainty.

Beyond The Door

I have a vague memory of my grandmother having a cuckoo clock – not a big one, mind, but loud enough when it worked – and it is a cuckoo clock that is the central feature of this story. You could argue that it’s rather more horror than science fiction, but that very argument could also be levelled against quite a lot of John Wyndham’s writing – and even The Birds, come to think of it – so I prefer to call it Hitchcockian. It’s normal to look at, but there’s nothing normal about it really.

The plot is incredibly simple. Unpleasant man buys his wife a much-wanted cuckoo clock. Wife is having an affair with an antique-loving neighbour, and is caught by her husband showing the neighbour the clock, which has always worked well. Husband throws her out but keeps the clock, which never works again. Husband then dies in highly suspicious circumstances.

You know how it’s going to be portrayed, but because Larry, the husband, is such an unlikeable person the reader is actually quite pleased that he dies at the end. Suffice to say, I’m now quite pleased that my grandmother’s old cuckoo clock never really worked properly.

The Cookie Lady

I’ve had two volumes of Philip K Dick’s short stories gathering dust on my shelves for far too long, so as I was in the mood for a bit of reality bending, I picked one up for a read on the train. I have to say that it was one of my better decisions, as almost immediately I remembered all the reasons why I love Philip K Dick’s short stories.

This story starts volume 2 of The Collected Stories (I own volumes 2 and 5) and, like a few of his tales, is set in what I can best describe as 1950s suburban America. There’s a rickety old house at the end of the street, children pass it on their way to school and nobody thinks anything of going to a little old lady’s house and eating the cookies she bakes for them every day…

Of course, it wouldn’t be Philip K Dick without that little mindwarp at the end, and to say any more would give the game away really, but it is a very clever variation on the vampire theme that I really enjoyed. What struck me, though, was the complete and absolute lack of malice; selfishness, yes, but not malice. Admittedly, there’s not enough of the story to merit turning it into a film (unlike two of the stories in the collection which have been) but if there is another series of Electric Dreams, then I think this could be a candidate for an episode.

Lost In A Pyramid

One of the best vampire short stories I’ve read recently has to be Lost in a Pyramid, not least because it’s a really interesting take on the genre, but also because it proved revelatory when I considered the last work by this author. It’s written by Louisa May Alcott, best known for that saccharine take on sisterhood in Civil War America, Little Women. I always wanted to be Jo, mainly because she was the only one who seemed to have any personality.

Anyway, back to the subject in hand. Lost in a Pyramid is, in my mind, two stories in one; the first half details the expedition to Ancient Egypt and the latter half details events following what they found. To say any more is to give it away, but it really isn’t what you think it is and I thought it was really very clever. More to the point, it was nothing like Little Women, which I found amazing!

I don’t know if Alcott wrote any more horror fiction (I suppose this does count as horror, as it’s quite creepy in places) but if she did, it really does deserve to be better known. I found this in my copy of Dracula’s Brethren, a recently released paperback featuring a number of late Victorian and early 20th century vampire stories which I really do recommend.

Where Are All the Women?

When one is reading a novel as short as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – I think, in fact, it is really only a novella – it is very hard to find something that hasn’t been discussed before. And when the novel is as well-known as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, it’s well-nigh impossible. If you’ve read anything like this before (and probably done better) I apologise, because I’m carrying on regardless.

If you’ve read it recently – and this is only the book I’m discussing, as the films are completely different – you may have been struck by the distinct lack of female characters. Such women as there are in the book are mere sketches, rarely mentioned and never named. Given that even a minor male servant who appears only at the book’s climax is named as Bradshaw, it’s startling that the crucial witness to the murder of Sir Danvers Carew is simply known as “Maid”. None of the characters appear to be married or have any kind of “love interest” – it’s as if women simply don’t exist.

Some commentators have suggested that this is due to Stevenson’s latent homosexuality, but I’m less sure. I think, if I’m going to be honest, that women simply didn’t feature in the story he wanted to tell – it was late Victorian men doing things that late Victorian men did, and the fact that none of them was married was incidental. It could have been explained by Enfield, Utterson and Lanyon all being elderly and Jekyll himself being too absorbed in his experiments, but I’m disinclined to read much more than that into it.

Still, it would have been nice if the eye witness had a name.

Edward Hyde as Addiction

I have to concede that this realisation hit me like a slap in the face. Edward Hyde is the representation of Henry Jekyll’s addiction – to what, is anyone’s guess – and all the clues are in the text. If we assume that Jekyll is addicted to laudanum, let me illustrate my point.

Early in the novel, Utterson is invited to dinner with Jekyll and contrives to stay behind to discuss Utterson’s distaste for Hyde. Jekyll replies that “he can be rid of Hyde at any time”. Anyone who has tried to give up smoking or drinking (or eating) will tell you that they can stop at any time – they just don’t. And so it proves with Jekyll, the temptation to concoct the potion and get away with murder is simply too strong.

Later on – in fact, during Jekyll’s confession – it becomes apparent that Hyde is appearing without the need for the potion, and Jekyll has to go to some lengths to hide his transformation. He describes the oncoming transformation as an “urge” or a “craving” – something any addict would understand immediately. And having to hide Hyde (sorry, but that was going to happen sooner or later, so I got it out of the way now) is just the next stage in the denial process – I don’t have a drink problem, but I keep a spare bottle of gin in the dog basket for emergencies, that kind of thing.

As far as I can tell, Edward Hyde is addiction personified. The only question, which despite three readings I still can’t happily answer, is what Jekyll is addicted to. But all the clues are there if you don’t believe me.

Forgotten Old Movies

I’ve found a television channel that seems to show old black and white movies that have slipped through the historical net and ended up forgotten. In some cases, it’s quite justified but I’ve seen a couple of films lately that are absolutely remarkable, with well-known actors and good scripts. I’m baffled why they’ve ended up on some obscure satellite channel rather than being on mainstream TV, even if it on a weekday afternoon. I know I’d rather watch an old film than yet another run in with Jeremy Kyle.

The first film I caught was Suddenly!, a 1954 film noir starring Frank Sinatra as a gangster hired to assassinate the president (given the date, I’m assuming it’s Eisenhower). The majority of the action takes place in two rooms – and would probably be quite easy to adapt as a stage play – but the script is excellent. Sinatra and his henchmen have commandeered a house to set up the gun in readiness for the arrival of the President at a sleepy California town, as the house has a perfect view. It soon becomes clear that Sinatra’s character is a psychopath who kills for the fun of it, and the actual target is irrelevant to him. The script is taut, the dialogue is sharp and the acting is top notch. Given that Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar for this movie, it’s pretty criminal that (1) I’ve never heard of it before and (2) it’s only been shown on TV on this back of beyond channel.

The other film I’ve come across is also a film noir, a 1947 psychological thriller starring Edward G Robinson called The Red House. It’s not a gangster movie, but has some wonderfully gothic elements surrounding a derelict house in woods owned by a handicapped farmer. If you’re familiar with the genre, you could probably work some of the plot out, but given its age it’s actually really exciting. It’s a good story with an excellent cast who do extremely well with the relatively poor script. Again, this is a great afternoon film that seems to have been buried under the blockbusters, and it’s a great shame.

I’m hoping that I catch up with some other cracking old movies, because they really are worth watching if you like sparkling scripts, well-dressed actors and plots that don’t rely on special effects.