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.

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CHARLES I ON HORSEBACK WITH HIS EQUERRY – VAN DYCK

I’ve recently finished a book about the sale of Charles I’s quite substantial art collection, and Charles II’s attempts to reconstitute it to form what is now the Royal Collection. Unfortunately, the book was written some years before the recent exhibition at the Royal Academy although the revised afterword did allude to the prospect of some of the paintings coming together for the first time since the mid-1600s. However, the book opens with a discussion of this painting, which apparently (according to Art UK) is in Cornwall (although there are other versions in Apsley House and the Manchester Art Gallery); but I have a rather different thesis than the author.

I’m fairly convinced that this image is partly responsible for the English Civil War. A bold statement, and I know full well that there were many other causes of the war, but I think this painting was instrumental. Here’s why.

Charles Stuart was never meant to be king. He had an older brother, Henry, who died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 15. Henry was, like his Tudor namesake, very much a sportsman and soldier, fit and able and keen on a variety of gentlemanly pursuits. He was also a keen art collector, and after his death his art collection was divided between his parents (James I and Anne of Denmark) and his younger brother, who had been considered by the family weak, feeble and not expected to survive for long. Indeed, it took James I five years after Henry’s death to have Charles proclaimed Prince of Wales, because nobody thought he would live long enough to succeed his father.

So already this painting feeds a lie; Van Dyck wishes to give the impression that Charles was militarily capable, authoritative and a bringer of peace throughout his kingdom. Contemporary evidence demonstrates that nothing could have been further from the truth. Charles, reliant on advisors who wanted nothing more than to advance their own causes, was indecisive, frequently deceitful and genuinely believed that, as King, he could do no wrong. He was above human law in all respects, right down to paying his debts. He never talked about money, as it was vulgar, and when chased for payment of his growing art collection, was affronted that these artworks were not gifts to His Majesty.

In creating this image of his monarch, I do feel that Van Dyck was pandering to Charles’ vanity and in so doing, promoted the image of Charles that he very quickly came to believe. It was unfortunate, then, that it proved so costly; in treating Parliament as a vassal and in believing he was above the law of man Charles lost everything. This begs the question of whether a more realistic portrait would have changed anything; I believe that it would have deprived Western Art of a master of baroque portraiture, but it might have given the King a much-needed reality check. We shall never know.

Chintz Makes A Comeback

Every so often I find myself glancing through the pages of a fashion magazine, usually because I’m stuck in the hairdressers (or doctors) and I’ve left my book at home. However, I have noticed that the so called fashion gurus are suggesting that chintz is making a comeback – and not just for home furnishings.

In its purest form, chintz is a glazed calico invariably printed with a floral pattern on a pale background, but the distinctive patterning has lent itself to designs on everything from pottery to wallpaper. The patterns are large and bold and often block-printed on a background of pale or bright colours, such as lemon yellow, pale green or ivory. The majority of chintz fabric was initially used for upholstery and it was not unknown to find curtains, bed covers, cushions and chair coverings all made from matching fabrics. That must have dazzled the eyes! It wasn’t long before unglazed calico and cottons were printed in similar styles, which also became known as chintz. Think Laura Ashley, but brighter with bigger patterns.

Chintz has been in and out of fashion since the late 17th century and before the production process for making chintz had been perfected in Europe, it was actually illegal in England and France to import it. This ban was lifted once the dyeing and printing process was understood and replicated in English cotton mills in 1759. English chintz added its own original designs to Indian, Persian and Mughal designs of early chintz.

As I say, it seems to be making a comeback – heaven help us – with large, bright floral patterns on a variety of jewel coloured backgrounds – and even black. Much as I love flowers, I’m not sure I like chintz. It will always remind me of a particularly uncomfortable armchair that I once sat on, which had been covered in a yellow chintz fabric that felt waxy and rigid. I didn’t like the chair, I didn’t like the feel of the cloth and I’m not sure I fancy swanning around Sainsburys in my finest curtain fabric. I can see this being another fashion trend I give a miss.

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.

Jon’s World – Philip K Dick

Time is one of those things that any science fiction writer worth their warp drive has to deal with sooner or later and, like reality and memory, is a concept that Philip Dick had a great deal of fun with. This story is a lovely example of why time travel is an inherently bad idea, but given a little spice with suggestions that mental illness may not be what we necessarily think it is.

Jon’s father, Ryan, has built a time machine with the intention of going back in time to steal the plans for an AI which, in their world, was used as a weapon and essentially turned Earth into a nuked out wasteland with small habitable patches. This actually reminded me a lot of MegaCity One from Judge Dredd if I’m honest. However, it is noted very early in the story that Jon is mentally ill, suffering from realistic hallucinations of an idyllic, agrarian culture – which in turn reminded me of Ancient Greece for some reason. Ryan goes back in time and achieves his mission, but makes a crucial mistake by killing someone who wasn’t meant to die…

Alternate history, where one crucial event in the past did or didn’t happen and thereby creating a different reality, is an entire science fiction subculture of its own. Some of it is very good and some of it – well, unreadable is about the best thing I can say. Dick’s treatment of it in this story is very cleverly done and very enjoyable, even if it’s not remotely subtle and you can spot the end half a mile away. It’s sad in places, exciting in others and not badly written. I found reminders of lots of things I’ve read/watched in the past, which just goes to show how influential Philip Dick’s ideas have been over the years.

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.

We Can Remember It For You Wholesale

I have an awful confession to make. I’ve never seen either of the two film versions of this story (both called Total Recall; one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doug Quaid, the other starring Colin Farrell in that role), but I have read the story a number of times and know it quite well. So my comments here are based on the story, not on the films and if they differ in any way, as far as I’m concerned that’s to their detriment.

Doug Quaid is a clerk who wants to go to Mars. He doesn’t just want to go – he really, absolutely, has to go. He doesn’t know why, but he has this feeling that Mars is the place for him. I know how he feels, I’m like that with Transylvania. Anyway, there is absolutely no chance he will physically gets there, so he pays a commercial company to implant fake memories of a trip to Mars that, to all intents and purposes, will appear completely real to anyone who questions it. It’s just that there’s a small problem…

I love this story, and I particularly like the delicious twist at the end. Knowing my luck, I’ll get to Transylvania and find out that I had been there in a previous life and that’s why I’ve always wanted to go back. The nature of reality and the nature of memory are two things that Philip Dick plays with a lot in his fiction and this is a great example of just how nebulous these things really are. I can see how Hollywood would have tweaked it to get a feature film out of it, but I much prefer the little dramas played out in the story.

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.