Why I shall be avoiding every author’s swansong from now on.


Reading-wise this hasn’t been a very good year for me. Even though my To-Be-Read List is considerably lighter than it was six months ago, 3 books especially, stand out for having proved big disappointments.

One was legitimately awful while the other two were not bad, but only proved dissatisfying because my expectations of them were so high. I think the disappointments were harder to take considering that all those three books were written by some of my favourite authors. (I had made my choices based on this fact)

One of them being Bram Stoker. As creator of one of the most famous horror novels ever, I thought it worth my while to give another one of his books my attention.

When I say that Lair Of The White Worm was ‘legitimately awful’, I say it with confidence only because I know I’m not being critical. While reading it, I came across far too many WTF moments. Apart from the errors and numerous inconsistencies, some of the scenes, imagery and subplots were so crazy and surreal that the story started to take on farcical proportions. I was left scratching my head as I read of supernatural kite-flying and weird hypnotic mind battles. Not what I expected from the author of Dracula. Even literary scholars have commented negatively on it, so I know I’m not the only one who feels this way about this novel.

However, I will admit, the same cannot be said for the OTHER two books that I read. Both works were critically acclaimed and one of them was highly recommended by people, whose opinions I rate very highly. Therefore I will not mention those two books and conclude that my disappointment with them stem from my own personal tastes rather than any flaws in the works themselves.

However, a strange coincidence revealed itself to me later on.

I’ll point out that all three books are very different in terms of genre, writing style and storylines etc. but they all happened to have one major thing in common: they were the last books these three authors had written before their deaths.  (Mindblown? No? Oh alright…)

On further investigation, I found out some pretty interesting information.

  •  The one unmentionable novel was not yet finished when the author suddenly passed away. The last few chapters were completed by another writer.
  • It is said that Bram Stoker died of syphilis in 1912. By the time he had finished Lair Of The White Worm in 1911, the disease had already reached the advanced stages. Mentally, Syphilis can be characterized by symptoms such as confusion, dementia, delirium and severe depression.

Well this certainly explains all the craziness in the novel!

In view of this new information, my sympathetic side was quick to pardon Mr. Stoker for this literary disaster. But this got me thinking. Should the background knowledge we have about an author affect the way we view their works? Should we allow sympathy to affect our judgement and objectivity? I know of people who refuse to even look at the book sleeve with the author’s bio when they purchase books, choosing to let the work stand on its own.

I’m the opposite however. I like reading up on the backgrounds and interests of the various writers whose works I read. It’s natural curiosity on my part to do so. But what do you think? If you read a book you thought was really bad but realised that the author was seriously ill when he/she wrote it, would you still be critical of it? Or do you think this information would help you to understand the story better?

Also have you ever thought about your WIP and wondered what would become of it if you ever passed away prematurely? A terribly morbid thought I know, but I mean, our stories are like our babies in a way. I assume you would not want it to be forgotten? Would you wish for someone to complete it and attempt to get it published?

And as for my reading luck, as sympathetic as I am towards authors and their personal sufferings, I am now dying to read a novel I know I will enjoy and these three books have now made me very superstitious. As a result I have since struck Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood of my TBR list. No more literary swansongs for me, thank you very much.

NM 🙂

The Most Famous Night in the History of Horror


In the summer of 1816, a couple holidayed with their friends at Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The man, Percy, despite being married to another woman, fell in love with a girl named Mary and the two lovers eloped to the Europe subcontinent together. They were joined at Lake Geneva by their friend Gordon and his personal physician John.

The Villa Diodati, near Lake Geneva. Image permitted courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Swiss summer that year was a wet one and one night, all four companions found themselves in front of a cozy fire in Gordon’s private villa. Outside, an angry tempest provided the perfect backdrop for the reading of ghost stories. Their reading list for the night consisted of various German stories from a book called ‘Tales Of The Dead’.
As the night progressed Gordon came up with an idea.

“We will each write a ghost story,” he suggested imperatively.
Thus began a competition to see who could come up with the scariest tale. The rest of their holiday seemed dedicated to this endeavour.

Percy started a story based on his childhood experiences but with his forte being poetry, he struggled with straightforward prose and failed to complete his tale. Gordon also failed to complete his story about a vampire and John’s efforts, constituting a “skull-like” ghost bride who takes revenge on her faithless groom, failed to impress and he was forced to abandon his creation as well (The good doctor was, however, very impressed with Gordon’s blood-sucking character and intended to write a novel based on this vampire, which he subsequently did).

18-year-old Mary struggled to produce anything at first.
But having recently suffered the loss of her first child and having to listen to discussions about galvanism between the 3 men, the Muses soon took over and Mary wrote a reanimation tale about a monster so chilling and macabre, that when she eventually submitted it to a publisher in 1817, they could not believe a woman wrote it.

Mary named her novella ‘The Modern Prometheus’ but later changed it.
Frankenstein, as it’s now known, is considered a classic masterpiece and according to some, gave birth to a new genre – science fiction.

As some of you have probably guessed, the characters in my little story above were none other than Mary Wolstoncraft Godwin, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dr. John Polidori and Gordon was none other than Mr. Controversial himself- Lord Byron.

When I first read about this I was completely fascinated. I love reading about how authors got inspiration for their famous novels. But what made this event at Lord Byron’s Villa Diodati even more remarkable was that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was not the only horror classic that owes its existence to that historic night.

As I mentioned, John Polidori was very impressed with the vampire character that Byron had created. And even though the doctor’s story proved a flop, he later wrote a novel called ‘The Vampyre’ (1819) based on Byron’s creation.
The novel’s main character Lord Ruthven is considered by some websites and literary scholars to be the first aristocratic vampire in English fiction.
More than 70 years later, an Irish author named Abraham Stoker would write a ground-breaking novel whose main character is now deeply embedded in the psyche of popular culture. Stoker listed Lord Ruthven as inspiration for this very character. Few people I think would dare disagree with me if I said Dracula, even after a century, is still the most famous vampire novel ever written.

How is it that one night, one prompt from a competitive literary genius like Byron, one night spent by the fireplace could give birth to a horror classic and also indirectly inspire another?
This question intrigued me, so much so, that I went on a studious quest to recreate that memorable evening (in my head of course). Unfortunately, there are so many different versions of what happened that night in Lake Geneva and in the subsequent days and months that followed, that I almost became frustrated with the lack of consistency.
Luckily my copy of Frankenstein (OneWorldClassics) contained an Introduction written by Mary herself, chronicling (albeit vaguely) her experiences of that night (my little retelling at the beginning of this post is based on her account).

So what does it take to inspire a great horror novel? Or any great novel for that matter?

Is nature important? Atmospheric mood and the natural elements seem to have played a key part in Frankenstein. And the influence of Switzerland’s natural beauty is clearly evident in Mary Shelley’s writing.

Image of the original Frankenstein manuscript, with scribbles/outtakes by Percy Shelley

Maybe pedigree plays a part? Both Mary’s parents happened to be distinguished writers in their own right. Or just maybe that age-old advice about surrounding yourself with the right type of people rings true?
Percy Shelley and Lord Byron were both considered poetic geniuses. Byron had already played his part in the creation of Frankenstein by prompting the creativity in his friends, and Percy, not only proofread and edited the first draft of Frankenstein but also supported and encouraged his wife with her writing career up until his death(like any good literary husband should!).
Maybe it’s a combination of all these factors that results in the telling of a great ‘ghost’ story. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking anything away from Mary herself. There was no doubt that she had talent and was hailed in even higher esteem than her husband and colleagues but inspiration has to come from somewhere. Something magical happened that night in Lake Geneva which cannot be explained.
If not, then is it just one big coincidence that two of the greatest horror novels ever written find themselves linked by a situation as innocuous as four friends sitting around a fire telling ghost stories? I leave you to decide for yourselves.

Whatever the case may be however, if you are a writer or in a creative profession, I hope inspiration comes to you, situations favour you and luck finds you in all your endeavours.

Happy writing!

NM 🙂

References:

– Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Author’s Introduction to the Standard Novels Edition. OneWorld Classics. 1818 (last ed. 2008).

John Polidori and the Vampyre Byron

Folkroots: Vampires in Folklore and Literature by Theodora Goss

DAY 20 – Book you have read the most number of times


I sort of have an idea but it’s not like I keep a tally or something. If I really like a book, I do have a tendency to read it again after some time has passed. Therefore there are quite a few books out there that I’ve read at least twice.

Except for the Deathly Hallows, I read all of the Harry Potter books at least twice (I’ve read Philosopher’s Stone, Chamber of Secrets and Azkaban 3 times).
Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian only got boring for me after my third go.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four and Study in Scarlet were both read twice although I think I also attempted Sign of the Four for the third time but eventually got bored with it half-way through.
Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers was also read twice though I’m not sure why I read it again-it’s not one of my favourites.

The book I have borrowed the most times from the library is the Complete Jack The Ripper by Donald Rumbelow, which is a non-fiction book. This might be due partly to the fact that at one time I was writing a Victorian murder story (I thought it was crap, so it lies unfinished) and was using this book as a reference. It’s still a great book anyway and I wouldn’t mind reading it again.

This leaves us with the two books that keep popping up in this Book Challenge.
I read Hound Of the Baskervilles either 3 or 4 times, I can’t remember. My Penguin Classic version of Dracula I read only once but I have read (as I mentioned in another post) a couple of other editions before and my Ladybird Childrens’ version I’ve gone through like a hundred times (although I know that one doesn’t count! ).

So who is the winner here? I’ll let Sherlock and the Count fight it out…

NM 🙂

DAY 08 of Book Challenge – Book that scares you


Now you would think I’d be in my element right now, being a horror addict and everything but initially I found this very difficult.

My first thought was to choose M.R James’ Collected Ghost Stories. There is a reason why he’s considered England’s King of the Ghost story. This collection contains some of the scariest short stories I’ve ever read. But I’m assuming however that this topic means I have to pick an actual novel per se.

After thinking a bit, I considered Karen Maitland’s Company Of Liars and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian but in retrospect, these were bland considerations.
I also nearly chose Poe’s The Pit And The Pendulum which I read when I was in school and which had a decidedly macabre effect on my young mind, only to be reminded that it was in fact a short story as well.
I ran through all the Stephen King, John Connelly, Peter Straub and Dean Koontz books I’ve read in my lifetime and I came to only one conclusion. Some books are called classics for a reason. Even while thinking about all these other great horror novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula just did not want to leave me alone. I did not want to consider it initially for fear of appearing too mainstream and superficial but it kept invading my thoughts like how the Count kept intruding on Mina’s.
Throughout my life, I have read so many different editions of Dracula- a children’s’ version (yes it does exist), many abridged versions, all down to my very own full-length Penguin Classics copy.

Dracula by Bram Stoker, after fighting very valiantly in my mind, has officially taken its place as my No.1 scariest book.

So is it really scary? Or is this one of those cases where we have to make provisions for the conservative Victorian mindset and take the very first audience’s reaction into consideration rather than our own?
I might be bias here but flippin’ hell, you can bet your holy rose water it’s scary!
I will admit that there are some Dickensian instances where the prose goes on a little ramble (I wonder if those Victorians really did write that superfluously in their journals?).

Gary Oldman, my favourite Dracula


There are many singular moments that make up for it however. The scariest scene ever for me, from ANY book in fact, is the one where Jonathan Harker is waiting at the Borgo pass for the special carriage to take him to the Castle.
No movie version of Dracula has ever come close to the book in capturing the terror and fear of this scene in my opinion.

There are other notable passages but I could be here all day.

I hope everybody will start to understand my aversion to modern vampire fiction now. After reading Dracula, you really can’t take the likes of Anne Rice and Stephanie Meyer seriously anymore. Well I can’t anyway.