Archive for April, 2014

Review of My Frankenstein

April 23rd, 2014  |  Published in Dark Tales, Horror

Product Details

There is an art to writing for young adults. Particularly in the gothic/fantasy genre which has exploded in recent years. My Frankenstein by Michael Lee succeeds because as with all good writers for young people he does not patronise them by presenting material that is easy. His subject matter is original – instead of going along with the plethora of vampires/zombies/werewolves he returns to one of the great modern myths, the story of Frankenstein and his creature, and reworks Mary Shelley’s story for a modern, teen audience. He is also strongly influenced by film versions of the story. Lee takes some liberties with the original story, as expected, but what impressed me was the fidelity to Shelley’s original themes and his expectation that his young readers want some depth to their reading.

The story’s main protagonist is Eva who lives in a village near Castle Frankenstein. Baron Frankenstein returns to the village determined to create a new, industrialised society. He recognises Eva’s intelligence and she becomes his protégé. At the same time he is engaging in his dreadful experiments. Eva falls in love with the charismatic Baron but their relationship is problematic as she is an independent and moral young woman who perceives deep flaws in his character. She is introduced to and becomes the tutor of Frankenstein’s “cousin”, Adam, who is horribly disfigured. Throughout much of the book the reader knows more about what is happening than Eva does and Lee uses the reader’s extra-textual knowledge effectively. There are also some neat moments such as Adam’s relationship with Eva, which recalls the film The Elephant Man.

Shelley’s philosophical and social comment remains intact in My Frankenstein: the irresponsible scientist who is driven by power, not morality; the appalling social and environmental effects of rampant industrialisation, particularly dehumanisation; society’s mistrust and hatred of the “other”; the unforeseen consequences of technological change; hubris versus humanity, and the classic gothic theme of what is monstrous.

The novel is an exciting and dramatic read, at times quite confronting for its intended audience, and an original reworking of its source material.


Book Review

April 16th, 2014  |  Published in Dark Tales, Self Publishing, Writer and Research

The Resurrectionist

The Resurrectionist by James Bradley is described as a “Gothic chiller” and “thrilling horror story” on the back cover, so with this review I will have a look at what makes the book fit such criteria. In particular I will look at Bradley’s writing style, which is powerful and atmospheric and vividly conveys the novel’s themes and concerns.

The main character, Gabriel Swift is living in 1820s London, apprenticed to Edwin Poll, an anatomist. Poll, and others in the story, exemplify science without conscience or morality.  Gabriel is a promising student, but in the course of the story he persistently falls prey to the worst aspects of his character. Anatomists need bodies and much of the novel is located in the grim world of the resurrectionists. Chief of these is the malevolent Lucan, who wields a lot of power as the city’s chief body-snatcher. Lucan is a classic character from a Gothic tale. Gabriel is fearful of him, yet drawn to him.

One daunting task for writers of dark fiction is to convincingly depict moments of horror. I recently read a novel where the writer seemed to think that a list of gruesome details such as eating entrails from a steaming corpse was enough to constitute horror. Unfortunately, the effect was about as horrifying as a shopping list. Bradley, however, is a master of the effect. This was, for me, the best aspect of the novel – its powerful, atmospheric writing. Some scenes are viscerally moving. For example, here is part of a depiction of monstrosities preserved in jars: “…a line of larger jars, each holding a child deformed in some dreadful way: one’s head an empty sack which billows on its neck; another made as a mermaid is, its back and legs disappearing into serpent coils; the head of the next turned inside out, the teeth growing in concentric rings through the exposed meat of the palate as if the inverted hole sought to consume the face in which it sits from chin to brow”. This writing is visually arresting and disturbing. Gabriel is a gifted illustrator, so notes what he sees with an artist’s eye; the detached narrative voice takes in, dispassionately, without any sense of straining for effect, the dreadful details, making the writing chilling, the scene grotesquely immoral, an early glimpse into the ghastly world Gabriel is drawn into. It also picks up a key Gothic theme, the nature of monstrousness; and it alludes to the kind of society we see Dickens trenchantly critical of.

The Resurrectionist is a master-class in writing. Bradley is skilled in drawing the reader into an utterly repellent environment by making it both fascinating and appalling.

Book Revew

April 10th, 2014  |  Published in Dark Tales, Horror, Writer and Research

I recently read The Diary of a Drug Fiend, written in 1922 by the infamous Aleister Crowley. Although it is not strictly a horror story, it is a horrifying story, and Crowley’s reputation as an occultist means that it may be of interest to other readers here. Not to mention the fact that Crowley is an excellent writer and the story is drawn from his own experiences. Crowley became a heroin and cocaine addict in the early twenties and remained so for the rest of his life. However, the book is not a moralistic tale about drugs and how bad they are. Rather, Crowley examines addiction as a form of thwarted spiritual search. The suffering endured by the main protagonists becomes a kind of extended ‘dark night of the soul’, where they are forced to confront the best and worst of themselves before emerging redeemed at the end of the story. Drugs per se are neither good nor evil, Crowley suggests, but rather, it is our attitude to them and how we use them in our lives, which matters. It is a contentious viewpoint, not one that I would endorse.

The story centres on Sir Peter Pendragon, a wealthy Great War flying hero and his wife, Louise (Lou) Laleham. The story depicts in dreadful detail the couple’s introduction to cocaine, then heroin and the awful effects this has on their lives as they degenerate into addiction. The novel, in this, is truly a horror story: “…before I reached the street I realised with desolate disgust and despair the degree of my degradation, of my damnation; and I hugged desperately my hideous perverse pride in my own frightful fate, and rejoiced as the horrible hunger for heroin made itself known once more, gnawing at my entrails.”  A good literary analogy would be with Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a book which also portrays harrowing psychological and existential experiences.

Along the way the author provides insights into the mind and behaviour of an addict: “We lie about and look at each other; but we can’t touch, the skin is too painful”. Pendragon is in part based on Crowley himself. The book also presents some of Crowley’s unique views, so that as we follow Laleham and Pendragon we are also offered Crowley’s thoughts on a diverse range of topics. “Sympathy with universal suffering brings one into a certain sombre serenity.” The book contains many reflections of this kind, not merely to create sympathy for the characters but to see their struggles as emblematic of humanity’s spiritual struggles.

The other main character is the magician, King Lamus, who keeps appearing throughout the story, attempting to guide the wayward couple to spiritual fulfilment. He, too, is based on Crowley.

The supernatural element in the story is subtly used. Crowley sees this as a natural part of our lives and our thinking about existence, so is not there to frighten the reader but to encourage the reader’s philosophical thinking: “The Devil, of course, needs a human interpreter if he is to communicate with this world, and so he took possession of Peter”.

It also has to be said that Crowley can be wickedly funny – there are some very humorous comments in the book, and that he is a terrific writer of memorable phrases: “The first of these women was a fat, bold, red-headed slut”. Many scenes in the novel are powerful and dramatic and Crowley’s imagery is often startling. Here he describes Pendragon’s impression of Lou’s hair: “It reminded me of the armature of a dynamo”.

The Diary of a Drug Fiend is highly recommended. It is an intense and gripping read. It also shows, as I try to do in my own writing, that horror is not always frights or gore, but also lurks within the mind, our fellow humans and in the chaotic universe around us.