Carmilla by Sheridan Le Fanu

My first book for this year’s RIP challenge is Irish author Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s classic vampire novella, Carmilla. First published in 1872, it is thought to have influenced Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which came more than twenty years later, and is one of the earliest examples of vampire fiction (although John Polidori’s The Vampyre and Byron’s Fragment of a Novel were written earlier still).

My previous experience with Le Fanu has been limited to his Victorian Gothic novel, Uncle Silas, and one of his short stories, Laura Silver Bell, both of which I read ten years ago. I’ve always intended to read more of his work, so when I saw Carmilla available through NetGalley (a new Deluxe Edition is being published by Pushkin Press this week) it seemed the perfect opportunity.

The story is narrated by nineteen-year-old Laura, who lives in a lonely castle in Styria, Austria, with only her father and governesses for company. Laura longs for a friend her own age and it seems she may get her wish when a young woman is injured in a carriage accident near the castle. Her name is Carmilla and her mother, who is desperate to continue on her journey, asks Laura’s father to take care of her daughter until she returns. Laura is delighted to have Carmilla staying with them, but also feels uneasy, because she has seen Carmilla before – in a dream that has haunted her since her childhood.

As this is a very short book, if I say much more I will be giving away the entire plot – and anyway, as I’ve already said that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what Carmilla really is and how the rest of the story will unfold. For the modern day reader there are no big surprises here, although I’m sure that at the time when it was published, as one of the first of its kind, it would have felt much more original and shocking. However, there are still plenty of things that make this book an entertaining and worthwhile read.

First of all, it’s interesting to read Carmilla while keeping in mind its place in history and its influence on later vampire fiction – there are some very obvious similarities with Dracula and Anne Rice has cited it as an inspiration for her Vampire Chronicles. It can also be read as an early example of a lesbian romance; although the constraints of 19th century fiction prevent Le Fanu from being too explicit, the relationship between Laura and Carmilla is clearly based upon physical attraction and we learn that Carmilla always chooses young women as her prey. Finally, with its sinister atmosphere, remote castle setting and other elements of classic Gothic literature, it’s the perfect choice if you’re taking part in the RIP event or just looking for something dark and spooky to read as we head towards Halloween!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book 1 read for R.I.P XVI

Witch Week Readalong: Something Wicked This Way Comes

witch-week-2016 I read this Ray Bradbury novel for a readalong as part of Witch Week, hosted by Lory at The Emerald City Book Review, but I’m sure I would have read it eventually anyway. It’s a book I’ve been interested in reading for a while – mainly, I have to confess, because I liked the title. It comes from a line spoken by one of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes”. I didn’t really have any idea what the novel itself was about, so the Witch Week readalong seemed a good opportunity to find out!

Published in 1962, Something Wicked This Way Comes tells the story of two teenage boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, who live in Green Town, Illinois. Not only are Will and Jim neighbours and best friends, they share another special bond: they were born just a few minutes apart, Will one minute before Halloween and Jim one minute after. They are inseparable, but they also have very different personalities – Will is the more sensible and cautious of the two, whereas Jim is more reckless and daring. The boys are thirteen years old as the novel opens one day in October when they have an encounter with a mysterious lightning rod salesman who warns that a storm is approaching.

something-wicked-this-way-comes That same night, a carnival – Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show – is heading towards Green Town. Will and Jim watch it arrive at three o’clock in the morning, excited that a carnival has come so late in the year. Their excitement quickly starts to fade, however, as strange things begin to happen in connection with the carnival and its sinister owners. When they spot Mr Cooger riding on a carousel while the music plays backwards, they realise they are witnessing something which shouldn’t have been possible, something which tells them that this is no ordinary carnival – and that their lives could be in danger.

I didn’t know what to expect from this novel, as it’s the first I’ve read by Ray Bradbury, but I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it. The writing style is unusual and took a while to get used to, but I found the use of language very intriguing. The streets are ‘footstepped’, for example, the rain ‘chuckles’ and ‘nuzzles’ at the windows, the people of the town ‘breathe back and forth’ to the carnival and laughter ‘walks on panther feet’. I’m not sure if I particularly liked the writing – the choice of words and the structure of the sentences are often so unconventional that I found it quite distracting – but it’s certainly one of the things I’ll remember most about this book.

I’ll also remember the philosophical musings of Charles Halloway, Will’s father:

So in sum, what are we? We are the creatures that know and know too much. That leaves us with such a burden again we have a choice, to laugh or cry. No other animal does either. We do, depending on the season and the need.

And the many wonderful descriptions of the library, where he works:

When rivers flooded, when fire fell from the sky, what a fine place the library was, the many rooms, the books. With luck, no one found you. How could they! – when you were off to Tanganyika in ’98, Cairo in 1812, Florence in 1492!?

Some of the readalong participants have discussed the fact that the two main characters (in the first half of the book, at least) are teenage boys and how the age we are when we first read the book could affect our ability to relate to the boys and their lives. Although I did still enjoy it anyway, I do wonder whether I might have had a different impression of it if I’d read it when I was younger. Later in the book, Charles Halloway begins to play a bigger part in the story, providing an adult perspective and bringing his experience, knowledge and wisdom to the fight against the evil forces of the carnival.

Good versus evil is obviously one of the major themes of the novel. A feeling of malice and danger hangs over the carnival from the moment it arrives and the people connected with it are both strange and sinister – particularly the blind Dust Witch who hovers over the boys’ houses in a hot air balloon in one of the creepiest scenes in the book. There are other themes too, though, such as life and death, age and the passing of time, the ties of friendship and the power of happiness and of love. Something Wicked This Way Comes is a fascinating read and one which left me with a lot to think about.

Vlad: The Last Confession by C.C. Humphreys

Vlad the Last Confession I discovered C.C Humphreys in July when I read Plague, a novel about, unsurprisingly, the plague. Looking at the other books he had written, I came across one called Vlad: The Last Confession and thought it might be a good choice for this year’s R.I.P. challenge. Despite my best intentions I didn’t manage to start it in time for R.I.P. but decided to read it anyway.

Vlad, of course, is Vlad Dracula (also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad the Impaler due to the particularly brutal method of punishment he used to torture his victims) but apart from the name, there are very few similarities with Bram Stoker’s famous vampire. I think it’s important to know, before you decide whether to read Vlad: The Last Confession, that this is not a vampire novel and not a retelling of Dracula. It’s a fascinating and thoroughly researched novel about a fifteenth century Prince of Wallachia (a region of Romania) who devoted most of his life to trying to secure his throne against rival claimants and fighting off the threat of the Ottoman Empire.

Born in 1431 in Transylvania, Vlad is the son of Vlad II, voivode of Wallachia and a member of the Order of the Dragon, hence the name Dracula (son of Dracul, the dragon). Vlad’s hatred of the Ottoman Turks begins at an early age when he and his younger brother, Radu, are held hostage in Edirne for several years. During their time in captivity they are educated in the Turkish language, religion and culture, but while Radu eventually converts to Islam and joins the household of the Sultan Mehmet II, Vlad remains resentful and defiant. Following the murder of his father, he returns to Wallachia to reclaim the throne.

Vlad’s story is told through the recollections of the three people who knew him best: his closest friend, his mistress and his confessor. These three are brought together after Vlad’s death and give evidence to help a jury – and the reader – to make up their minds about Vlad. So who was he, really? A brave leader who fought for what he believed in or a cruel, sadistic tyrant? I think the answer was probably both.

Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler

One of the things I liked about this novel was the fact that C.C. Humphreys’ depiction of Vlad is fair and unbiased; he doesn’t try to make excuses for his behaviour but at the same time he helps us to understand how and why Vlad came to commit some of the appalling acts he is known for. For example, during Vlad’s time as a Turkish hostage he is taken to a torture chamber and forced to learn some horrific medieval torture techniques. Although he resists at first, he soon adapts and tells himself that “we torture others so they cannot torture us”. While this certainly doesn’t justify any of his later actions, at least we can see some of the early experiences and influences that shaped the man he would become.

I’ve mentioned the torture scenes; I should warn you that there are also a lot of impaling scenes (and they are described in graphic detail) but I think this was necessary to illustrate the darker side of Vlad’s character in a way that makes a real impact. There are a lot of battle scenes too – and fights, jousts and descriptions of falconry. This is quite an action-packed novel, but Humphreys also explores Vlad’s relationships with his childhood friend, Ion Tremblac and his lover, Ilona Ferenc, as well as with enemies such as Mehmet. I have to admit, I would much rather have had more time spent on the personal storylines and less on the fighting and brutality, which I thought started to become very repetitive.

I found some of the history difficult to follow because of my complete lack of knowledge of what was happening in Eastern Europe during this period, but by the time I finished the book I felt I’d learned a lot. And even though my interest started to wane towards the end, I was glad I’d persevered. Vlad III is apparently considered to be a national hero in Romania and although a lot of the shocking things described in Humphreys’ novel are based on fact – he lists them in his author’s note at the end – I was left wondering whether Vlad may in some ways have been unfairly treated by history. As one of the characters in the novel remarks, “What the world knows is the story his conquerors told. And since they controlled so many printing presses, it was their stories that were widely spread”.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

HillHouseReadalong I’ve included this book on my R.I.P. list every year since I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle in 2011, but this is the first year I’ve actually found time to read it, thanks to a readalong hosted by the Estella Society. They have posted some discussion questions for us today, which I didn’t see until I had already written my post…though I think I’ve said everything here that I want to say anyway. I’ll look forward to reading what everyone else thought of it!

The Haunting of Hill House is a 1959 novel by Shirley Jackson. Dr John Montague, an anthropologist and psychic investigator, is renting Hill House for the summer in the hope of studying the supernatural phenomena and ghostly manifestations that he believes take place there. After assembling a list of people who have had previous paranormal experiences he invites them to stay in the house with him as his assistants, but there are only two who accept the invitation: Eleanor Vance, a shy, lonely woman of thirty-two, and the confident, outgoing Theodora. Accompanied by Luke Sanderson, whose aunt is the owner of Hill House, Dr Montague and his guests arrive at the house one by one and wait for something to happen.

Things do soon begin to happen but I can’t tell you too much about those happenings because as with all books of this type it’s best if you know as little as possible before you start. All I will say is that the story is told from Eleanor’s perspective…and Eleanor is not always entirely reliable. The supernatural element of the novel is quite subtle and you can never be completely sure what is going on. Because we spend so much time inside the head of a character who is unstable and insecure it’s difficult to tell exactly what is real and what isn’t.

The Haunting of Hill House I didn’t find this book as frightening as I’d expected, but that could just be because I deliberately avoided reading it late at night (I’m a coward when it comes to books like this). There are certainly some very creepy moments, though – without having to resort to graphic horror, Jackson is still able to unsettle the reader and convey the feeling that something isn’t quite right. I loved the descriptions of Hill House – it has all the characteristics you would expect a haunted house to have, including a tragic history – but there are very few physical manifestations of ghostly activity. The creepiness of the story comes mainly from the fact that we don’t know how much of the ‘haunting’ is caused by Hill House itself and how much is the product of Eleanor’s disturbed mind.

I had been looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House because of its status as a classic American haunted house story and because I loved the other Shirley Jackson book I read. I really wanted to love this one too, but I have to be honest and say that I didn’t. It was good, but not as good as We Have Always Lived in the Castle. However, if you’re new to Shirley Jackson, I would recommend either of these two books as a perfect read for this time of year.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black - Susan Hill The Woman in Black begins on Christmas Eve, when Arthur Kipps’ family gather round the fire to tell ghost stories. To the surprise and disappointment of his wife and stepchildren, Arthur refuses to join in and leaves the room, not wanting to explain that the only ghost story he knows is a true story that’s too terrifying to be told. Standing outside in the cold, Arthur decides to write his story down instead. The rest of the novel consists of Arthur’s account of something that happened to him many years earlier.

As a young lawyer, Arthur was sent to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs Alice Drablow, in the town of Crythin Gifford. Before her death, the elderly Mrs Drablow lived alone in lonely Eel Marsh House, which can only be reached from the mainland by the Nine Lives Causeway which becomes flooded at high tide. At the funeral Arthur sees a woman dressed in black but when he tries to find out who she is he discovers that nobody will answer his questions. Arthur’s work takes him to Eel Marsh House where he decides to stay for a few days sorting through Mrs Drablow’s papers – and alone in the isolated house, cut off by the tide from the rest of Crythin Gifford, Arthur has a series of encounters with the mysterious woman in black, each one more frightening than the one before.

The Woman in Black is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I put it on my list for the RIP challenge last year but didn’t have time for it, so added it again to this year’s list, determined to read it this time. I’m glad I’ve read it at last and I did enjoy it, but I didn’t love it as much as I hoped to. I didn’t find the book as scary as I thought it would be either. There were a few scenes that sent a shiver down my spine, but it wasn’t quite the terrifying story I’d been expecting. I wonder whether the fact that I had to read the book in two sittings with a break in the middle made it have less impact; my advice to anyone else reading this book for the first time is to make sure you give yourself enough time to read it in one sitting if possible (it’s only a short book so it would be quite manageable).

Although this book didn’t really succeed in scaring me, it does still have everything you would expect from a traditional ghost story: there’s a creepy old house in a remote and lonely setting, lots of bad weather including storms and thick fog, a sense of mystery created by the villagers’ reluctance to talk to Arthur or to go anywhere near Eel Marsh House, and of course the ghostly manifestations of the woman in black herself. I am starting to get impatient with characters who insist on staying in houses that they know are haunted, though – Kate in Midnight is a Lonely Place which I read recently was exactly the same. I know it would spoil the story if they ran away at the first sign of trouble but I think I would have more sympathy if they weren’t voluntarily choosing to spend the night in a haunted house!

There’s not really much more I can say about this book without starting to give too much away. It’s written in a Victorian style, which I loved, but I kept wondering when the story was supposed to be set. It was obviously not the Victorian period as there were mentions of cars and electric lights, so I’m assuming it was set in the early decades of the twentieth century. I loved Spider the dog – she was my favourite character! And I thought the ending of the book worked perfectly – it wasn’t entirely unexpected but I was still shocked by it!

Midnight is a Lonely Place by Barbara Erskine

Midnight is a Lonely Place My first introduction to Barbara Erskine’s work last year, River of Destiny, left me unimpressed but I was assured by Erskine fans that her earlier books were better, so when I found this one at the library I decided to give her another chance. I also thought it sounded like an ideal book to read for the RIP challenge, even though it wasn’t on my original list.

When author Kate Kennedy’s relationship with her boyfriend, Jon, comes to an end and she is forced to move out of their London home, she decides to rent a cottage on the Essex coast where she can spend the winter working on her new biography of Byron. The owners of the cottage, Diana and Roger Lindsey, live in a farmhouse nearby and do their best to make Kate feel welcome, but unfortunately not all the members of the Lindsey family are happy to see her. The eldest son, Greg, an aspiring artist, had been using the cottage for his painting and resents Kate for pushing him out. His fifteen-year-old sister, Alison, is an amateur archaeologist and is furious when she discovers that Kate has been interfering with her dig at what she believes is an ancient Roman grave.

When strange things start to happen at Redall Cottage, Kate suspects Greg and Alison of trying to frighten her away, but after several encounters with ghostly figures she begins to accept that she is being haunted by the ghosts of the Roman soldier Marcus Severus Secundus, his wife Claudia, and the Druid prince, Nion. It seems that Kate has stumbled upon a two thousand-year-old love triangle that ended in a murder and a curse – and secrets that have been buried under the earth for centuries are about to be revealed at last.

Midnight is a Lonely Place was much better than River of Destiny, but still not a book that I can say I loved. I was right about it being a perfect RIP choice, though. It has all the elements of a classic ghost story: a lonely, isolated cottage, an ancient burial site, ghostly apparitions, strange smells and unexplained noises, relentless snow, sleet and blizzards. It’s quite scary in places and you might not want to read it late at night if you’re on your own (while I was finishing the book on Friday evening the real-life weather outside obliged with heavy rain and strong winds which made it even more atmospheric).

While Marcus Severus Secundus, Claudia and Nion do have a strong presence in this novel, the story is set entirely in the early 1990s (which actually feels surprisingly dated from a 2013 perspective) and we only learn about the Roman characters’ lives in brief flashbacks at the start of the chapters. I would have liked their storyline to have been more fully developed as I felt I didn’t get to know them well enough to really care about them or their secrets and this meant that, for me, the novel wasn’t as effective as it would have been with a stronger historical element.

The second half of the book is suspenseful and action packed, as the level of paranormal activity increases and more and more of Kate’s friends and neighbours become involved (at one point it felt as if the whole population of Essex were wandering about getting lost in the snow) but I found the ending disappointingly abrupt. I’m not sure I correctly interpreted the final page and after reading what was quite a long book (more than 400 pages) I had expected a more satisfying conclusion. I certainly enjoyed this book a lot more than River of Destiny but I’m not sure I’ll be looking for any more of Barbara Erskine’s books – though I might still be interested in reading Lady of Hay, her first and best known book.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The problem with reading The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the 21st century is that most of us probably already know what the story involves. Even without having read it or seen any of the film versions, everyone knows what is meant by a ‘Jekyll and Hyde personality’. And this completely takes away the suspense and air of mystery that the story relies on so heavily. I’m sure the original Victorian readership would have found the connection between Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde much more shocking! So is there still any point in reading it? Yes, I thought there was, because although I knew what the ultimate revelation would be, I didn’t know all the details of the plot or how the conclusion would be reached.

We first see Dr Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde through the eyes of Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, Mr Utterson, who becomes concerned when he discovers that Jekyll has made a new will leaving everything to Mr Hyde. All Mr Utterson knows about Hyde is that he’s a sinister and brutal man responsible for some cruel and unprovoked acts of violence. The first half of the book follows the lawyer’s attempts to learn more about Hyde and his relationship with Jekyll. It’s only as we approach the end of the story that we hear from Dr Jekyll himself, in the form of a letter addressed to Mr Utterson, and the truth is finally revealed.

The story is cleverly structured so that if you had no idea what was coming, you would be kept wondering, knowing only as much as Mr Utterson knows, and it’s disappointing that for most modern readers the surprise has been spoiled. The part of the story I found the most interesting was the final chapter, after the secret has been uncovered and Jekyll gives his own explanation of what happened and his views on the good and the evil aspects of human nature. We can really feel his desperation as his own dark side grows stronger and things begin to spiral out of his control.

The edition I read contained just the novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; other editions include a selection of other Stevenson short stories. Jekyll and Hyde on its own was only 88 pages long and if I’d realised how short it was I would have made time to read it earlier. This was one of my choices for RIP VII, and I would recommend it to other RIP participants who would like to read an important piece of classic Victorian fiction without committing to a full-length novel. I can’t say that I loved it and it’s not something I would want to read again, but I’m glad I’ve read it once and can see why it has become a part of popular culture.