Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Dark Side of Christmas


Christmas hasn't always been a time for peace and joy. In many cultures, the long cold nights which lead to the winter solstice were the perfect time for scaring each other - and their own children in particular - to death.

Gryla


In Iceland they have Grýla - a giantess from Icelandic folklore. Grýla only appears on Christmas eve. She is a scary, ugly hag, often depicted with ears that dangle down to her shoulders, a beard that is heavily matted and teeth which are black as rocks.

On Christmas Eve she comes down from her cave and kidnaps the children who have been misbehaving all year. Grýla is said to have an insatiable appetite and children are her favourite snack. She takes the children she has abducted back to her cave and cooks them into a stew, which happens to be her favourite dish.


Krampus


In German-speaking Alpine region, they have Krampus: a horned, anthropomorphic figure. According to traditional narratives, Krampus punishes children during the Christmas season who had misbehaved.

Saint Nicholas and Black Pete



In Holland and Belgium they have Saint Nicholas and his assistant Black Pete. In these politically correct times, Saint Nicholas is a benign old man, and, due to racial sensitivities, Black Pete isn't black anymore, but when I was a child in the 1970's, we were still told that Black Pete would put you in a canvas sack if you had been naughty, take you back to Spain and turn you into a little ginger biscuit which would be fed to the good children the following year.

Telling Ghost Stories at Christmas


In England they had the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. Mention the words ‘Christmas ghost story’, and most people will automatically think of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Indeed, it has become the quintessential example of the subgenre. But Dickens wasn’t the only one who was wont to writing seasonal tales of this sort.

The Victorians were generally a macabre bunch and there was a huge flowering of supernatural fiction during the Victorian era. Most of the famous literary names from that period - writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle , Elizabeth Gaskell and Edith Nesbit - produced such stories, 

So why was scaring children at Christmas so popular in Europe?  Christmas was the time for family gatherings, and in an age before mass media, story telling was the only pastime during the long dark winters. Supernatural tales appealed to both old and young alike, so this was the ideal genre. And no matter how frightening the stories were, the evening’s scares could easily be dispelled by a bright light or the good-natured laughter of the storyteller at the end of the tale. No doubt there was also a moral dimension to the telling of these stories, a way of impressing people that they must lead good, wholesome lives otherwise they would never achieve the peace in death that was the ambition of every Victorian.

(source: Simon Marshall Jones - http://www.thisishorror.co.uk/features/christmas-ghost-stories/)


Death Takes a Lover

So, if like me, you find the Christmas period a peculiarly fitting time to scare your friends and family to death, and you want to help re-ignite this tradition, then why not buy my book this Christmas. 'Death Takes a Lover' is the chilling tale of a repressed detective trying to solve a gruesome murder in the bleak and wintry Yorkshire moors. Fusing Gothic romanticism and fin-de-siecle melodrama, it is a chilling entry into a world which some may not want to enter, but if you do, don't say you haven't been warned.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The Irrepressible Allure of Victorian Gothic



The Goths were a Northern Germanic tribe who hailed from the Southern Scandinavian peninsula. There was nothing particularly dark or sinister about them - other than perhaps the usual Nordic moodines which results from the long, cold Scandinavian winters. Along with the Saxons, the Franks and the Vandals, they were instrumental in the defeat of the Roman empire. The term 'Gothic Architecture' was first used in Renaissance Italy to describe the building style of the post Roman era. It was used as a derogatory term. What they really meant was 'Barbarian Architecture.' The Goths were blamed for destroying many of Rome's ancient buildings and of erecting new ugly and vulgar ones. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that artists started re-appraising the beauty of Barbarian art. They became obsessed with the many ruined churches, abbeys and cathedrals which dotted the landscapes of Western Europe and they started speculating and romanticizing about the 'mythical dark age' which gave rise to their own Western Germanic culture.

In 1764, the historian Horace Walpole published a novel called 'The Castle of Otranto', which he claimed was an English translation from a long forgotten medieval classic. It was a tragic tale of a cursed family living in a haunted castle and it caused a sensation. It later emerged that the book was a forgery and that Walpole had created the story himself, but it gave rise to new form of art, one which became known as 'Gothic literature'.



Soon many authors stared writing dark, supernatural tales set in gloomy medieval castles. The most successful of which was Anne Radcliffe, whose tales always featured hapless heroines embroiled in sinister and supernatural plots. Her novels were particularly popular with young ladies who found emotional release from their suppressed and regimented lives in the chills and horrors of Ms Radcliffe's writing. Gothic literature was frowned upon at first, but it remained many a young woman's guilty pleasure. They would secretly keep a Gothic novel hidden beneath their pillow and they'd sit up at nights and fill themselves with chills and terrors - emotions they were normally not subjected to in their everyday lives.



In the nineteenth century, however, Gothic literature started evolving into a more sophisticated read. Gone were the cheap chills of tormented heroines in haunted castles and in came existential questions about progress and evil. In 1818, Mary Shelley published 'Frankenstein', the famous tale about an eccentric scientist who attempts to create a living being by patching together body parts collected from various corpses and jolting them into life with electric shocks. Dr Frankenstein creates a hideous monster, too ugly to name, who is let loose into the world. Feared and shunned by everyone it meets, the monster soon becomes intent on killing the scientist who lumbered him with his wretched existence. The book raises fundamental question about the responsibility of science, but also about the difficult and intricate relationships between man and God; son and father, the object and its creator.

Mary Shelley

The theme of revenge is further explored in another classic of early Victorian Gothic. In 'Wuthering Heights' Emily Bronte dispenses with medieval castles and dungeons and sets her tale in the bleak and barren Yorkshire Moors. It is the tale of Heathcliff, a homeless boy of “dark skinned gypsy aspect” who is found by Mr Lockwood during a visit to Liverpool and subsequently adopted and taken back to live with his family on the Yorkshire Moors. Heacthcliff is never fully accepted by the family and a raging hatred swells within him as he grows up snubbed and belittled by his adopted family and their acquaintances. Driven by this hatred, Heathcliff spends his adult life wreaking vengeance on all those who tormented his childhood, never showing an ounce of sympathy or remorse for the lives he destroys. The novel outraged critics at the time. The Atlas review commented: "We know nothing in the whole range of our fictitious literature which presents such shocking pictures of the worst forms of humanity. There is not in the entire dramatis persona, a single character which is not utterly hateful or thoroughly contemptible.Graham's Lady Magazine wrote: "How a human being could have attempted such a book as the present without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors."

Timothy Dalton as Heathcliff in the 1970 version of Wuthering Heights

Although the aforementioned critics make it sound as though the Victorian establishment would find it inconceivable that someone should be drawn to such a cold and hard-hearted character as Heathcliff, Emily Bronte's heroe, with his dark, brooding looks and harsh, relentless passion, has become one of the greatest romantic heroes in English literature. After all, the dark side of human nature has always held an irrepressible appeal to readers. It does now and it did then. The truth is that the Victorians were completely fascinated by the ugly side of life, as the popularity of sensationalist newspapers like the Illustrated Police News demonstrates - it made a lot of money out of reporting on the most sordid and viscous crimes. And it was always short on words and large on gory illustrations, so that even the illiterate poor could wallow in the horrors of England's underbelly.


This fascination with the dark side of life led Robert Louis Stevenson to publish “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” in 1886. It is the story of an eccentric doctor who develops a potion which allows him to separate his good side from his dark impulses. In the guise of Mr Hyde, the doctor is able to free himself from his conscience and allows himself to indulge in his sordid fantasies without consequence, or recognition. A theme which was also explored by Oscar Wilde in “The Picture of Dorian Grey”



But probably the greatest classic of Victorian Gothic has to be "The Turn of The Screw" by Henry James, published in 1898. It is the enigmatic tale of a governess charged with the care of two children in a large, lonely country house. Haunted by ghosts and her own repressed emotions, she fears supernatural elements are out to harm the children, but is the place really haunted, or is she slowly going insane? The book has all the elements of Gothic: a large gloomy house; supernatural occurrences; repressed sexuality, but it subverts them and strips them down to into a wicked little tale, bursting with atmosphere and menace, and an ending which is open to interpretation.



If you're into top hats and corsets; foggy London streets and gaslight; passionate men and repressed woman; a brooding atmosphere and impending menace; then Victorian Gothic is for you. I hope that with this blog I have roused your interest in this intriguing genre and, perhaps, you might be interested in my own Victorian Gothic novella. It is the story of a Scotland Yard Detective who has been sent to a remote house in the Yorkshire Moors to investigate the suspicious death of a young man who seemed to have everything to live for. Fusing Gothic romanticism and fin-de-siecle melodrama, it is a chilling entry into a world which some may not want to enter, but if you do, don't say you haven't been warned.



Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Wilkie Collins, Bulgaria and Me

I spent the winter of 2009 looking after my parents' holiday house in the remote mountains of Southern Bulgaria. Somewhere in the middle of February, after some particularly heavy snow fall, I found myself completely snowed in and without electricity. I was trapped indoors with nothing but tinned food and dry crackers to feed me and a cheap, old, dog eared Wandsworth Classic to occupy my mind.





It was there, cuddled up by the fireside, wrapped in a blanket, reading Wilkie Collins's 'The Moonstone' by candlelight, that I was first inspired to write 'Death Takes A Lover'. It was the perfect setting to enjoy this classic Victorian mystery. Kardjali - a remote and forgotten corner of Bulgaria, abandoned by the young folk, littered with ruined and tumbled down homesteads, where wrinkled old ladies walk up the steep hills with their kerchief'd heads carrying heavy loads of firewood on their backs, or sit cross legged on the ground watching their cows graze the rocky fields, while their husbands drink and gamble their pensions away at the local cafe. Time had come to a standstill there (somehow it had even managed to roll back) and this bleak world of Victorian hardship and inequality which I read about, seemed more relevant to me then than anything I might have otherwise watched on television.




Time had come to a standstill for me too. I was not so young anymore and life had been leading me in the wrong direction. So before my dreams of becoming a writer had been fully frustrated, I decided to stop, take a sabbatical and go on my snowy retreat. So there, in the white and desolate Rhodopi Mountains, stuck in the past, trapped by the weather and by my own longings and yearnings and anxieties about a life half lived, the story was first conceived. It's a story about missing the boat. About hadship and inequality. About working and idling, lusting and yearning. A story about death. A story about love.



Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Trials Of Oscar Wilde

Ever since listening to “The Real Trial Of Oscar Wilde” on Radio Four a couple of week ago, I've been pondering the tragic downfall of this theatrical genius.

At the height of his career, Oscar Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and imprisoned for two years. He was subjected to a harsh regime of ' hard labour, hard fare and hard bed' which left him mentally and physically exhausted. He was forced to flee to Paris after his release and he died at the age of 46 with his reputation in shatters, his health destroyed and his fortune depleted.


Oscar Wilde
Wilde, of course, was a homosexual and homosexuality wasn't decriminalised in the UK until 1967. But the late Victorian period wasn't nearly as prudish as popular culture would make us believe. There was a very active gay scene in London at the time and Wilde's sexual orientation was something of an open secret amongst the theatrical community. Wilde made very little attempt at disguising his relationship with the young Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie) and everyone knew that the two were more than just good friends. Wilde's incarceration was not the result of a puritan society frowning on his immoral activities (the Victorians were generally not concerned with what went on between consenting adults, so long as it happened in private) Wilde was incarcerated because, much like Vicky Pryce in recent years, he used the law to get satisfaction in his own private vendetta. And lost.

There were two trials which led to his downfall. The first one was instigated by Wilde himself after the Marquess of Queensberry (Bosie's father) left his calling card at his club accusing him of being a sodomite. Wilde became indignant and accused Queensberry of libel. This was an extraordinarily foolhardy thing to do considering both he and Bosie had been very open and reckless in their dealings with rent boys and homosexual brothels. The onus was now on Queensberry to prove that Wilde was a depraved older man who habitually enticed naive youths into a life of vicious homosexuality.

The Marquess Of Queensberry
Wilde was smugly confident at first that he could outwit Queensberry's lawyers with his eloquence. He viewed the whole trial as a game of words which he was sure to win – after all, although Wilde readily admitted to consorting with young men of low class, it was almost impossible in an age before the ubiquitous presence of cameras to prove that any homosexual activity had actually taken place. Wilde relied heavily in endearing himself to the court by resorting to humour and witty retorts and exposing Queensberry for the pompous and blundering old fool that he was. But it was exactly this flippancy which led to his downfall. When Wilde was asked whether he had ever kissed a certain servant boy, Wilde responded, "Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it." When he was then asked why the boy's ugliness was relevant, Wilde hesitated and for the first time became flustered: "You sting me and insult me and try to unnerve me,” he said, “and at times one says things flippantly when one ought to speak more seriously.”

It didn't take long after that for Queensberry to assemble enough evidence to prove his accusation. His lawyers paid rent boys to secure their damming testimonies and Wilde was soon forced to drop the case. He was now faced with debilitating legal charges and, having so publicly incriminated himself, the authorities had no option but to arrest him for gross indecency. This led to the second trial and eventually to his own destruction.

So why did this play affect me so? Well, it was Wilde's foolhardy decision to prosecute Queensberry which intrigues me. What was he thinking? What was behind this self destructive streak? Well, the fact is that Wilde was being used by Bosie to get back at his father. Bosie had a very troubled relationship with Queensberry, whom he despised. Whereas Bosie was sensitive and artistic, Queensberry was a bully and a brute and was more interested in the art of fighting than in his son's poetry (This is the same Queensberry who composed the famous boxing rules). Queensberry looked down on his son. He considered him a sissy and a weakling and never ceased tormenting him. He was fiercely opposed to Bosie's relationship with Wilde and was dead set on separating the two. In fact he had a bee in his bonnet about older men trying to corrupt his sons. He had already accused Rosebery, the liberal statesman and future prime minister, of having a homosexual affair with his elder son Francis who worked for him as his private secretary. Francis died in a suspicious hunting accident, which some believe may have been a suicide resulting from his father's threats to expose him. Bosie was deeply affected by his brother's death and as far as Wilde was concerned, this was the last straw. Encouraged by Bosie, Wilde took Queensberry to court in an attempt to put to an end his incessant bullying, but as we have seen, it all backfired in the most tragic fashion.

Lord Alfred Douglas (aka Bosie)
The trials of Oscar Wilde were a great sensation at the time and many films, books and plays have been written about it, all of which try to illuminate what was really going on in Wilde's mind when he embarked on this spectacular feat of self destruction. Was he a fool for love? A martyr for the gay cause? A shameless attention seeker? 

A certain phrase I once stumbled upon while reading Robinson Crusoe came to mind as I listened to the play. It is a phrase which intrigues me and which has subsequently become the underlying sentiment in my forthcoming novel “The Ornamental Hermit”:
‘It is a secret overruling decree that hurries us on to be the instruments of our own destruction. Even though it be before us we rush upon it with our eyes wide open’.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Glamorous and Grotesque - A list of my favourite Disney villainesses.

"Why are so many of my gay friends so obsessed with Disney animated movies?" I wondered as I watched my 101 Dalmatians dvd one rainy Sunday afternoon. Could it be that we are children at heart and are naturally more sensitive and appreciative of the artistry involved in making these movies? Possibly. But more likely it's because no one does a diva quite like Disney. Villainesses have been a staple ingredient in Disney movies from the very beginning and these anti-heroines have stolen the show every single time. They're far more memorable than the bland and squeaky clean princesses. Or, for that matter, Disney's male villains (which, intriguingly, often tend to be rather camp and effeminate, but that's a subject for a different blog entry) Disney Villainesses fall into two categories; they're either glamorous or grotesque, but they're always perfect bitches and irrepressible divas. Here's a list of my favourites.


The Evil Queen from Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs - The original Disney villainess. Beautiful, self obsessed, narcisistic and angst ridden. It's no wonder Woody Allen gave her a cameo role in Annie Hall where he cast her as one of his earliest objects of affection.

  
Lady Tremaine from Cinderella - The prototypical step mother. A bundle of bitterness and rage hidden beneath a sophisticated exterior.


The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. - Like Queen Victoria on speed. Livens up what was otherwise a dull and uninspiring movie.


Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty - Queen of Gothic chic. Currently starring in  her own live action blockbuster.


Mad Madam Mim from The Sword In The Stone - one of Disney's more outrageous villains. Reminds me of a few troublesome women I've had to deal with in recent years.


Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians - Chain smoking, anorexic eccentric with a fur fetish and a two tone hairstyle. I've been fascinated with her ever since I was a kid. In fact, she's the one who started my Disney fascination.


Madame Medusa from The Rescuers - not as well known as the others characters, but one of my all time favourites. Brilliantly voiced by Geraldine Page, she's vulgar, comical and deliciously evil.


Ursula from The Little Mermaid - None come more grotesque than this fat octopus witch. Her song 'Poor unfortunate Souls' is one of Disney's best musical numbers.


Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove - Not one of Disney's best movies, but worthy of a mention as it marks the final performance of Eartha Kitt, who voiced the character in the film and the tv series.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Tragedy Of Peter Pan




Continuing my series of 1970's movies, I recently watched 'The Lost Boys', a BBC drama series made in 1978 about JM Barrie and his relationship with the Llewellyn Davies boys.

JM Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, befriended the boys in Kensington Gardens while they were walking with their nanny. He endeared himself to the boys with his stories and playful antics and became a regular part of their lives. The boys lost both their parents in the space of three years and were eventually adopted by Barrie. Barrie was married to Mary Ansell, but their relationship was reportedly unconsummated and they didn't have any children of their own.

JM Barrie


There were five boys in total; George, John, Peter, Michael and Nico. The boys' relationships with Barrie varied. George and Michael were very close to him, but Jack harboured some resentment towards him for taking his father's place. Peter was ambivalent, but Nico adored him. Although it was Peter who gave his name to Barrie's alter ego, Michael and George are widely reported as being the ones who most influenced Peter Pan's portrayal.

Although there has often been suspicion about the nature of Barrie's relationship with the boys, there is no evidence of anything sexual. As an adult, Nico, the youngest of the boys, flatly denied any inappropriate behaviour and is quoted as saying that “he didn't believe 'Uncle Jim' ever experienced what one might call "a stirring in the undergrowth" for anyone — man, woman, or child.” But other contemporaries describe his relationship with the boys as 'morbid' and 'unhealthy'. Inevitably as the boys grew up, what once was fun and playful, now became oppressive and pathetic.

Three of the boys met a tragic end. George was killed in the Great War. Michael, who Nico described as "the cleverest of us, the most original, the potential genius” died aged 20 in an ambiguous drowning accident with a close friend (and possible lover) which many believe to have been a suicide pact. And Peter, who had always resented being associated with Peter Pan, committed suicide at age 63 by throwing himself under the train. At the time of his suicide, he had been editing family papers and letters, and had reached the documents relating to Michael's possible suicide. This may have sparked off his depression, but other possible contributing factors were his ill health (he was suffering from emphysema), and the knowledge that his wife and all three of their sons had inherited the usually fatal Huntington's disease.
Michael: the cleverest of us, the most original, the potential genius
The general consensus seems to be that Barrie was a manchild who was unable to form deep and meaningful relationships with other adults. Like Peter Pan, he was stuck in a childlike world, loved and worshiped temporarily by other boys until they grew up and left him; a child trapped in a man's body.


All boys grow up. That's their tragedy
Except for one. And that's his.

Perversely, for Bobby Driscoll, the actor who voiced Peter Pan in Disney's 1953 version, it was growing up which proved tragic. He was a wonder child who starred in some of Disney's most popular live-action pictures, such as Song Of The South, So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island and even won an Academy Juvenile Award for outstanding performance in feature films. But he was hit by a terrible bout of acne when he reached puberty and was unceremoniously dumped by the Disney Company when he lost his cute looks. He struggled to find acting jobs since and became heavily involved with drugs. He died aged 31 from heart failure, penniless and destitute. His body was found in an abandoned tenement in Manhattan, but it wasn't identified until a year later when his mother started looking for him and contacted Disney for a hoped-for reunion with his father, who was nearing death. This resulted in a fingerprint match at NYPD, which located his burial on Hart Island. 


Bobby Driscoll - the voice of Peter Pan


Monday, 5 May 2014

Why did Billy Joe McAllister jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge?


I was listening to this song on Graham Norton's radio show the other day and it occurred to me just how brilliant these lyrics are. Bobby Gentry does not use one word too many to describe the aftermath of a tragic suicide on a narrow minded community in a small Mississippi backwater.


A TV movie speculating why Billy Joe Mcallister may have jumped off the Tallahatchie bridge was made in 1976. (One of several movies made in the 1970's based on classic country songs like 'The Gambler', 'Harper Valley PTA' or 'The Coward of The County'). I haven't seen the film, but I've read the synopsis. It's an intriguing and plausible theory, but I won't tell you what it is. You're better off not knowing. 


The song isn't about why Billy Joe killed himself. It's about the fact that nobody but the narrator cares. It's about the burden she carries as her family sit around the table, eating black eyed peas, talking about how 'nothing ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge', while she secretly mourns the death of a friend. It's about the small lives and narrow minds of a dusty delta town in the 1950's and two young misfit's desperate and hopeless desire to leave it all behind.

It is the right combination of narrative, atmosphere and intrigue.  It is story telling at its best.


  

Friday, 18 April 2014

Memories – misty, water colored memories.




I have a huge collection of dvd's and watch a different film every night. I have a rather anal and overly complicated process for deciding which film to watch next. I will not bore you with the details of how my viewing list is compiled, but I will tell you that at the moment I'm watching a series of films from the 1970's and yesterday's movie was 'The Way We Were' - a much maligned romantic classic from 1973 starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford.

It's the 1930's and Streisand plays Katie, a difficult, unpopular, loud mouthed, socially awkward, humorless, frizzy-haired, Jewish girl who hides her insecurities behind witty retorts and a hectic lifestyle. In college she is constantly ridiculed for her passionate campaigning for the Young Communist League.

Redford plays Hubbell, a good looking, waspish college jock. He is a talented writer to whom everything comes easily. He is charming and aloof but there's a general air of discontentment about him. A feeling of not being worthy. A lack of struggle.

Opposites attract and after college, in the 1940's, Katie and Hubbell fall in love. She loves him for his talent and the ease with which things come to him, and he loves her for her never ceasing passion for her political ideals and steely determination to set wrongs right.

Hubbell writes a successful novel which gets optioned by Hollywood and they move to California where the relationship soon begins to sour. As the film studio savages Hubbell's book, there's a nagging and growing feeling between the two of them of having sold out. They plan to leave it all behind as soon as they have earned enough money and move to Paris to live as artists and bohemians, but it soon becomes apparent that Hubbell is reluctant to abandon his successful career. Things come to a head when Katie joins a demonstration against the House on Un-Amercian Activities Committee in Washington. Hubbell becomes scared that her political activities will damage his career and result in him being blacklisted. Realizing that the relationship is going nowhere, Katie and Hubbell eventually decide to split up.

The film is essentially about a plucky young Jewish woman who secretly longs to be accepted into the mainstream and rebels in order to attract attention; and a talented young WASP who is bored with the establishment and secretly longs to step out of his safe, little circle, but doesn't dare to. 

It is the 1950's now and  Hubbell is working for television. He is successful, but he still feels like a lucky faker. That nagging feeling of having sold out, of not daring to daring to take chances, of being cursed by having it easy, has never left him. Suddenly he sees Katie outside the television studio, protesting against nuclear weapons. He smiles. 

“You never give up, do you?” he says as he walks towards her. There is a look of admiration in his eyes. She is taken aback by his sudden appearance, but delighted to see him again after all this time.
“Only when I'm absolutely forced to,” she replies. “ But I'm a very good loser.”
“Better than I am,” he laughs bitterly.
“Well... I've had more practice.”

Admittedly the film looks a little dated and the sound track is a little corny, but once you get past all that, this is an intelligent love story - the likes of which are not made any more - about an insecure outsider struggling to get in, and a confident insider struggling to get out.