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One From The Archive: ‘John Diamond’ by Leon Garfield ***

Leon Garfield’s John Diamond, which was first published in 1980, has been reissued in a lovely new edition as part of the Vintage Children’s Classics range.  Peter Williamson’s cover design is marvellous, and it fits wonderfully with the darkness of the story.  Vintage have recommended that the book is suitable for everyone over the age of nine, and upon reading it from an adult stance, it is difficult to envision that anybody – indeed, of any age – would dislike it.

9780099583271The novel opens in a manner which immediately piques the interest: ‘I ought to begin with the footsteps, but first of all I must tell you that my name is William Jones and that I was twelve years old when I began to hear them’.  His father tells him whilst on his deathbed that he ‘swindled’ Mr Diamond out of a great fortune, and thus, the main thread of the story concerns William’s travels to London to ‘make amends’ with his late father’s old business partner.  The ‘murky big city, with its sinister characters and treacherous back streets’ is clearly no place for him.

William tells us that ‘This story is about my father, chiefly.  He was a tall, handsome man, with his own hair, his own teeth, and, in fact, with nothing false about him’. After his father’s death, he goes on to say, ‘I knew that, until I found Mr Diamond, neither my father nor I would ever have peace.  Night after night he would shuffle and drag across the floor, amd night after night I would hear him; unless I left the house and set out on the journey that would lay his ghost’.

John Diamond is rather atmospheric at times, and it is filled with childish and rather amusing caricatures of those around William.  His Uncle Turner, for example, with his ‘bullying face’ and ‘strong smell of peppermint’, was ‘a stern, God-fearing man, and I think the feeling must have been mutual – God, I mean, being frightened of him’.  William himself is brave and likeable, and much care and compassion is built up for him as the novel progresses.

Garfield’s novel is cleverly crafted, the first person narration works marvellously, and plot details are dripped in at intervals throughout to keep the interest of the reader.  Vintage have lovingly overseen the production of John Diamond, adding rather a fun section called ‘The Backstory’ at the end of the book, which invited readers to learn how to speak in Cockney rhyming slang, as well as providing a quiz, an author biography, and facts about London in the time in which the novel is set.  John Diamond is certainly deserving of this reprinting, and it is sure to be a wonderful addition to any bookshelf.

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One from the Archive: ‘Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling’ by Michael Boccacino **

First published in July 2012.

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling, billed as ‘a Victorian Gothic tale’, is American author Michael Boccacino’s debut novel. The story takes place in a country home named Everton on the edge of an English village named Blackfield.

The story opens with ‘the dance of the dead’, in which we are introduced to the protagonist’s late husband and parents. Echoes of the Victorian Gothic genre are apparent from the first page, and it feels from the outset as though something rather dark is lurking beneath the surface of the novel. The book’s opening line – ‘Every night I dreamt of the dead’ – is gripping and sinister in equal measure. Indeed, the ever-present fear of death death is personified and the very threat of it is treated as a character in itself. The line between the living and the dead is blurred in the novel: ‘Death made himself known to me as he took the souls of my loved ones to the Other Side’.


At the outset of the novel, Nanny Prum, ‘a woman of some physical substance’, is entrusted with the care of the two Darrow boys, Paul and James. She is soon found brutally murdered by one of Charlotte’s friends – it was ‘Nanny Prum… all in pieces. Like she’d come apart from the inside’. The boys, though only a young teenager and a five year old respectively, have already had to deal with loss and grief in their lives. Their mother, Lily, passed away the year before Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling begins. Charlotte soon takes up position as the nanny of the boys, leaving her post as governess more or less behind. In Mr Darrow, the master of the house, she finds a ‘nocturnal confidant’. The two grow closer as they try to ward off the ‘comfortable melancholy’ which has settled itself around them.

One morning, Charlotte takes the boys on a spontaneous morning trip, and this is where the more fantastical events of the novel begin to occur. Whilst in the forest, they find themselves ‘in a strange land with shadows that crawled and pieces of fruit that walked’. They come across a ‘great house’ and ‘a woman, tall and regal, even at a distance… She descended the steps leading up to the house with slow deliberation, almost gliding to the ground, a beautiful phantom’. This woman turns out to be the late Lily Darrow, and the mansion the magical House of Darkling. Here, time passes at a different speed, and everything is not quite as it seems. The boys are sworn to secrecy and promise not to tell about meeting her mother after Lily says: ‘It’s almost like a spell that’s keeping me from leaving you forever, and if you tell your father, it will be broken’.

The descriptions throughout the novel work well, and are rather evocative. Ballroom guests during the dance of the dead are ‘dressed in moldering finery’, and the large country house in which the Darrow family live has ‘fallen into a comfortable state of disrepair’. Charlotte sees in it, however, ‘a warmth… a kind of intimacy that only comes with age, like the creases around the mouth that appear after years of excessive smiling, or a favorite blanket worn down from friendly use’. The names of the chapter titles are intriguing and darkly magical, ranging from ‘A Lesson in Dreaming’ and ‘Interrupted Moonlight’ to ‘The Stolen Sun’ and ‘The Unraveling of Nanny Prum’.

Despite the novel’s promising beginning, interest in the story does wane around a third of the way through. The book holds many historical inaccuracies and countless phrases which would not have been uttered by English people during the Victorian era. The village of Blackfield is described as a ‘small, wholesome sort of place’, James Darrow says ‘I dunno’ – language which would not be used by a privileged boy who has been brought up with wealth and the best of intentions – and Charlotte ‘read for a bit’ to pass the time. References are made to ‘taffy’, and ‘cookie’ is used instead of ‘biscuit’. It stands to reason that an American author would use vocabulary which he is comfortable with, but such language would not have been used in England during the period. Such historical mistakes really do let the book down.

The novel uses the first person perspective of Charlotte Markham. At first her narrative voice is captivating and feels relatively authentic, working very well with the unfolding story, but it soon becomes evident that her voice is perhaps a little too modern to work with her character. Charlotte’s character, too, is not an altogether likeable aspect of the book. Whilst she is sympathetic to a point about the boys losing their mother, she often comes across as self-important, believing that her own status as a widow is far more important than two young children growing up without a parent.

Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling is rather an intriguing read, but one which seems to have not been checked for even the most basic of historical facts. It does not seem like a consistent novel in terms of its storyline or characters, and many elements fall flat in terms of their overall execution.

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Mini Reviews: ‘The Robber Bridegroom’, ‘Girl Number One’, and ‘Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror’

The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty ****
‘Legendary figures of Mississippi s past-flatboatman Mike Fink and the dreaded Harp brothers-mingle with characters from Eudora Welty s own imagination in an exuberant fantasy set along the Natchez Trace. Berry-stained bandit of the woods Jamie Lockhart steals Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of pioneer planter Clement Musgrove, to set in motion this frontier fairy tale. For all her wild, rich fancy, Welty writes prose that is as disciplined as it is beautiful.’ 9780156768078

There is nothing quite like a Southern Gothic fairytale, and there is also nothing quite like Eudora Welty’s writing. After reading the fabulous correspondence between Welty and William Maxwell, I sought out a couple of her volumes from my personal collection, and spent a morning with The Robber Bridegroom. From the beginning, there are elements of the Brothers Grimm – as one might expect, I suppose, given its title. In fact, the novel (novella?) begins almost like a bedtime story, in that it is set in a place far, far away some centuries past, and the narrative voice is lilting and lovely. Welty’s writing is sometimes simple but always intelligent, and her story builds marvellously. Her character descriptions also ensure that vivid beings spring to life from the page.

The Robber Bridegroom is one of the most inventive and original novels which I believe I have ever read. Welty has such a hold over her characters and settings, and everything is beautifully evoked.

 

Girl Number One by Jane Holland *
9781503938212As a young child, Eleanor Blackwood witnessed her mother’s murder in woods near their farm. The killer was never found.  Now an adult, Eleanor discovers a woman’s body in the same spot in the Cornish woods where her mother was strangled eighteen years before. But when the police get there, the body has disappeared.  Is Eleanor’s disturbed mind playing tricks on her again, or has her mother’s killer resurfaced? And what does the number on the dead woman’s forehead signify?’

I am getting more and more into thrillers of late, and downloaded this from Netgalley as the premise sounded interesting. Alas and lackaday. I found it cliched from the very beginning. It had the usual girl-with-traumatic-past-goes-running-excessively-in-order-to-try-to-put-said-traumatic-past-behind-her. It doesn’t work, obviously. The ‘thrilling’ part of the book ensues once excessive running and whiny narrative voice has been established (which takes far longer than it should, let’s be honest), which is predictable enough to not be thrilling at all. Not that well written, and honestly, if you’ve read Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, you probably don’t ever need to pick this up. It seems to follow the same style, just without the wedding party in the woods thing, and is a lot less enjoyable to boot.

 

Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley *** 9781408802762
‘Uncle Montague lives alone in a big house and his regular visits from his nephew give him the opportunity to retell some of the most frightening stories he knows. But as the stories unfold, another even more spine-tingling narrative emerges, one that is perhaps the most frightening of all. Uncle Montague’s tales of terror, it transpires, are not so much works of imagination as dreadful, lurking memories. Memories of an earlier time in which Uncle Montague lived a very different life to his present solitary existence.’

Chris Priestley’s work appeals to me, even though I’m a grownup and should probably have left the realm of children’s books behind me when I left my teens. Saying that, children’s literature is magical and wondrous and unpredictable, and I don’t want to lose those qualities; they are just as important for grownups, in my opinion. If I therefore want to read a children’s book I will do so, and I will do so proudly; hence my wish to pick up Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror.

I love Gothic fiction, and from the beginning I was reminded of Neil Gaiman and Colin Meloy’s Wildwood series. The scope of the tales here is broad; I admired the way in which one could not quite guess where the story was going. It perhaps goes without saying that these stories are beautifully illustrated too.

My three-star rating is the result of two things; firstly, that some of the stories were better than others, but I expected as much to be the case when I began; and secondly, that it lost quite a bit of momentum as it progressed. Even though the stories were different, and contained different people, the characters had shared attributes on the whole, and were presented in quite similar ways. Perhaps due to the format of the novel, the sections featuring Edgar and Uncle Montague seemed very samey too. A good book, but perhaps a little long; not a series I will be continuing with, I’m afraid.

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‘We Have Always Lived in The Castle’ by Shirley Jackson ****

We Have Always Lived in The Castle is a book I’ve been seeing around in bookish blogs and BookTube videos quite frequently and it had piqued my interest from the very beginning. Only recently, though, did I get the chance to acquire a copy of my own and finally read it. 26852229

The gothic and ominous atmosphere permeats the book and I have to admit that I felt perplexed whilst trying to figure out what is going on in the story and what kind of events led our characters to their current situation.

Mary Catherine Blackwood, or simply Merricat as her sister calls her, is the narrator of the story. She is the youngest daughter of the family and she is currently living with her sister, Constance, and uncle Julian, since the rest of their family have died due to food poisoning for which Constance was held accountable but was soon acquitted of the murder charges.

Even though Merricat merely wants to live a peaceful life with the remaining of her family, things do not seem to be all that favourable. The rest of the village is still scared of the Blackwood daughters and they avoid them as much as they can, they accuse them or they even make fun of them by concocting rhymes such as:

“Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?”
“Merricat, said Constance, would you like to go to sleep?”
“Oh, no, said Merricat, you’ll poison me.”

As a result, Merricat appears to nurture feelings of hatred towards everyone outside her family and she does everything she can to protect this little sanctuary of hers. However, Cousin Charles makes an appearance to the Blackwood household and this peace and quiet seems to be about to vanish.

It is difficult to talk about this book without mentioning any spoilers, even more so since it’s a rather slim book of approximately 146 pages. The truth is that apart from a couple of truly important events, not much happens in the present of the story. There are some references to the murder of the family that happened in the past and some hints here and there about what might have truly happened, but since the narrator is Merricat and she doesn’t seem to be very stable all the time, it is hard to distinguish the truth. I would have liked some more closure, to be honest, and that is the reason why I didn’t give this book the 5 stars it would definitely deserve.

Shirley Jackson’s writing is superb and vivid and poetic and she manages to keep the reader’s interest piqued until the very last page. Merricat’s character is certainly the most interesting in the entire book and the most complex one as well. Even though it is a gruesome and sad story, I would recommend it not only to fans of gothic fiction but also to those who enjoy well-written prose and well thought out characters.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

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One From the Archive: ‘Gretel and the Dark’ by Eliza Granville **

‘Gretel and the Dark’ by Eliza Granville

In Gretel and the Dark, two stories run parallel with one another.  The first begins in Vienna in 1899, where a ‘celebrated psychoanalyst’ named Joseph Breuer is ‘about to encounter his strangest case yet.  Found by the lunatic asylum, thin, head shaved, she claims to have no name, no feelings – to be, in fact, not even human’.  The second story takes place years later.  Protagonist Krysta’s father works in the infirmary, so she is forced to play alone, ‘lost in the stories of Hansel and Gretel [and] The Pied Piper of Hamelin‘.

The prologue begins in an interesting manner, which one thinks is about to build a haunting story.  Its beginning line intrigues, as well as building up a sense of rather stifling foreboding: ‘It is many years before the Pied Piper comes back for the other children’.  Just that one sentence and the prologue which hinges upon it is enough to send chills down the spine.  The way in which Granville makes even nature seem sinister within the prologue works marvellously – ‘Cabbages swell like lines of green heads’, for example.   Sounds fabulous, doesn’t it?  I was expecting, particularly after reading the prologue, to find an atmospheric and creepy novel.  Why, then, does the rest of the novel not follow suit?

The prologue, as I have said, is deftly crafted, but I felt that the writing from the first chapter onwards detracted from its more enigmatic qualities, making it seem like part of a different book entirely.  If the novel had continued in the same way, I would imagine that the novel would be spellbinding.  Granville has used a first person perspective in the prologue and then switches to the third person when the novel proper begins.  It became lacklustre quite quickly, and whilst I loved the sound of the book, it did not at all live up to my expectations.  I did not like it enough to read it to its end.

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Gothic Novels

There is little that I enjoy better in winter than curling up with a startling Gothic novel.  Below are five of my favourites.

1. Florence and Giles by John Harding
‘In a remote and crumbling New England mansion, 12-year-old orphan Florence is neglected by her guardian uncle and banned from reading. Left to her own devices she devours books in secret and talks to herself – and narrates this, her story – in a unique language of her own invention. By night, she sleepwalks the corridors like one of the old house’s many ghosts and is troubled by a recurrent dream in which a mysterious woman appears to threaten her younger brother Giles. Sometimes Florence doesn’t sleepwalk at all, but simply pretends to so she can roam at will and search the house for clues to her own baffling past. After the sudden violent death of the children’s first governess, a second teacher, Miss Taylor, arrives, and immediately strange phenomena begin to occur. Florence becomes convinced that the new governess is a vengeful and malevolent spirit who means to do Giles harm. Against this powerful supernatural enemy, and without any adult to whom she can turn for help, Florence must use all her intelligence and ingenuity to both protect her little brother and preserve her private world. Inspired by and in the tradition of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Florence & Giles is a gripping gothic page-turner told in a startlingly different and wonderfully captivating narrative voice.’

2. Dracula by Bram Stoker 9780141199337
‘A chilling masterpiece of the horror genre, “Dracula” also illuminated dark corners of Victorian sexuality. When Jonathan Harker visits Transylvania to advise Count Dracula on a London home, he makes a horrifying discovery. Soon afterwards, a number of disturbing incidents unfold in England: an unmanned ship is wrecked at Whitby; strange puncture marks appear on a young woman’s neck; and the inmate of a lunatic asylum raves about the arrival of his ‘Master’, while a determined group of adversaries prepares to face the terrifying Count.’

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
‘”I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will.” Bronte’s infamous Gothic novel tells the story of orphan Jane, a child of unfortunate circumstances. Raised and treated badly by her aunt and cousins and eventually sent away to a cruel boarding school, it is not until Jane becomes a governess at Thornfield that she finds happiness. Meek, measured, but determined, Jane soon falls in love with her brooding and stormy master, Mr Rochester, but it is not long before strange and unnerving events occur in the house and Jane is forced to leave Thornfield to pursue her future.’

97818440887994. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
‘Working as a lady’s companion, our heroine’s outlook is bleak until, on a trip to the south of France, she meets a handsome widower whose proposal takes her by surprise. She accepts but, whisked from glamorous Monte Carlo to brooding Manderley, the new Mrs de Winter finds Max a changed man. And the memory of his dead wife Rebecca is for ever kept alive by the forbidding housekeeper Mrs Danvers… An international bestseller that has never gone out of print, Rebecca is the haunting story of a young woman consumed by love and the struggle to find her identity.’

5. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
‘For lucidity and compactness of style, James’s short novels, or novelles, are shining examples of his genius. Few other writings of the century have so captured the American imagination. When “Daisy Miller,” the tale of the girl from Schenectady, first appeared in 1878, it was an extraordinary success. James had discovered nothing less than “the American girl”–free spirited, flirtatious, an innocent abroad determined to defy European convention even if it meant scandal . . . or tragedy. But the subtle danger lurking beneath the surface in “Daisy Miller” evolves into a classic tale of terror and obsession in “The Turn Of The Screw.” “The imagination, ” Henry James said to Bernard Shaw, “has a life if its own.” In this blood-curdling story, that imagination weaves the lives of two children, a governess in love with her employer, and a sprawling country house into a flawless story, still unsurpassed as the prototype of modern horror fiction.” “The Turn Of The Screw” seems to have proved more fascinating to the general reading public than anything else of James’s except “Daisy Miller.”‘

Which are your favourite Gothic novels?  Are there any which you would recommend to me?

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Classics Club #49: ‘A Sicilian Romance’ by Ann Radcliffe ***

I am sure that the eagle-eyed amongst you are noticing a theme here, but I have wanted to read Radcliffe’s work for such a long time, and thought that placing A Sicilian Romance onto my Classics Club list would be a nudge in the right direction.  First published in 1790, the novel is firmly implanted within the Gothic tradition and veers toward the melodramatic almost from its beginning.

9780199537396As is often the case with my Classics Club reviews, the following blurb of the Oxford World Classics edition illustrates the story perfectly, without giving too much away: ‘This early novel explores the cavernous landscapes and labyrinthine passages of Sicily’s castles and covents to reveal the shameful secrets of its all-powerful aristocracy. Julia and Emilia Mazzini live secluded in an ancient mansion near the Straits of Messina. After their father’s return to the island a neglected part of the house is haunted by a series of mysterious sights and sounds. The origin of these hauntings is only discovered after a series of breathless pursuits through dreamlike pastoral landscapes. When revelation finally comes, it forces the heroines to challenge the united forces of religious and patriarchal authority.’

A Sicilian Romance is most engaging from the first.  I found myself immediately spellbound, drawn as I was into the Sicilian setting.  Radcliffe moves the plot along beautifully, and the whole has been so tenderly written.  Much emphasis has been placed upon the senses and the general feel of the whole.  Radcliffe’s descriptions are often sumptuous, and the way in which she weaves in the imagined history of the castle and the Mazzinis who inhabit it is a definite strength, adding another layer to the whole.  It certainly has shades of Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (review here) about it.

As one might expect from a Gothic novel, particularly one at the relative beginning of the canon, A Sicilian Romance is rather dramatic, even to Shakespearean heights in places; characters are taken prisoner and confined to dungeons, ‘cruel fate’ awaits, there are elopements, and strange goings on prevail.  The story is rather predictable in places, particularly as it nears its climax, and it certainly relies heavily upon melodramatic incidents.  A lot of opposites manifest themselves within the plot, from bravery and cowardice to the disparities between rich and poor, and from a social perspective, I found this fascinating.

A Sicilian Romance is rich and well-paced.  The third person perspective and use of the past tense which Radcliffe has made use of both work well; it is so over the top in places that the two together do not really act as distancing devices.  Whilst I was not too enamoured with the convenient ending of this moral novel, I am most looking forward to reading more of her work in future.  Ann Radcliffe’s work is a wonderful choice for existing fans of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; her writing is just as rich and descriptive, and I feel that she should certainly be more widely read.

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