Shelf-Life

Books, reading & writing


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Frankenstein: the beast in me.

 

Whether or not Frankenstein is truly the first science fiction tale (I went to a great exhibition at the British Library a few years ago that charted sci-fi’s history much further back than the 19th century), its giant footprints are stomped into so much that has come after. How surprising then to find that the original story lacks many of the popular culture touchstones associated with the myth.

 

There is not lightning scarred castle; no deformed assistant to aid the good doctor; the monster is not a stumbling, moaning zombie, but an articulate, thoughtful creature. There aren’t even any pitchfork carrying villagers trying to smoke the Doctor out of his hellish keep. And no-one ever shouts ‘It’s alive!’

 

Likewise, if it was meant as a cautionary tale I’m not sure what it is that Shelley wished us to be cautious of. Even after his life is brought to ruin Frankenstein implores the headstrong sea captain and scientist who rescued him to continue with an ill-advised voyage of exploration to the Arctic. This is despite Frankenstein recognising the captain shares the motivation – the unquenchable thirst for knowledge – which led him to misery and exile.

 

It may be a caution against the runaway parent, since it is Frankenstein’s rejection and abandonment of his creature that sows the seeds of woe. It could also (and this is my preferred reading) be a demand to greet those you do not know with kindness rather than fear. Ultimately, it is Frankenstein that creates the man, but fear that creates the monster. It is the repeated rejection and persecution visited on him by the humans that he meets that turns the monster to the dark side. Man creates his own enemy not through science but through intolerance and ignorance.

 

It is notable that the unsavoury attitudes expressed in Dracula, my last book, towards the lower classes are absent here. While the monster is turned away and harried by rural people he meets, they are not made into beasts themselves. The old blind man, the only person to show the monster kindness, is key to the story. If others saw the monster as he did (or did not) tragedy would not have followed. I wonder if Shelley ever wrote a counterpoint to the story picking up this possible thread and working it through to its end. That is a story I would like to read.

 

If the creature turned his will to good, what could it have achieved? Would it grow old, decay, fall apart? How long would it live? Could it rebuild itself? Would it ever find the companion it sought? Would it live cloaked and cowled and fight against evil like some 19th century superman? Hmm there could be a story in that . . .

 

Next up is Chris Beckett’s new sci-fi tale of an abandoned astronauts and incestuous civilisation, Dark Eden.

 

 


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Dracula: Horror that has real bite

 

If place is important in creating the right mood for reading, few places could have been more appropriate than where I spent the first half of Bram Stoker’s classic horror tale (other than Transylvania of course). At my parent’s house in the Highlands of Scotland, I spent a week cocooned in thick Scotch mist. The weather completed the isolation of an already remote location and it wasn’t long before the shadow of the Count was drifting through the cloying fingers of fog.

 

The story starts with young solicitor Jonathan Harker already on his way to Castle Dracula. Having assisted the Count in buying a house in London through correspondence, he travels to the heart of the Carpathians to finalise the sale and transfer ownership to his mysterious client.

 

A sense of mystery and dread builds as Harker’s route weaves through small, huddled villages populated by hushed, superstitious locals, and towering, snow-tipped pine forests echoing with the howls of wolves.  He quickly arrives at his destination, the eponymous Castle Dracula, finding it perched like a black vulture over the shadowy valleys and jagged cliffs. Welcomed into the castle by the Count, he quickly realises that Dracula is not so much his host as his jailer, and that to let this fiend travel to London would be the ruin of many a life.

 

The pace of the opening act is fast. Dracula’s web draws around Harker as preparations for his own departure gather pace. Soon the story shifts to England, where the Count begins to ensnare the friend of Harker’s fiancé, Lucy. So begins a trial of strength between Dracula and the protectors of his victim.

 

The narrative plays out in correspondence and journals of the main characters, giving the reader several points of view of the unfolding  horror. The only main character not to contribute to the narrative is the Count himself. I wonder what his take on events would be as his centuries of preparation are constantly frustrated by the intrepid band arrayed against him.

 

While an engaging story (I devoured it in around nine or ten days) it does lag in the middle. Similarly, the pacing of the final act is uneven, first rushing forward and then settling back to a steady jog before a sprint to a blink and you’ll miss it finish.

 

The scares are timeless but at times the Victorian characterisation is grating. There is swooning aplenty from the women, despite the many attempts by their gallant male protectors to preserve their ‘gentle dispositions’. Likewise, servants and the lower classes are all either stupid, drunk, dishonest or unhelpful. It’s a good thing the heroes have an aristocrat in their number, or they might have been left paupers by all the bribes paid out to exhort information from the poor. In some cases the lower classes are looked on by the heroes as even more wretched creatures that their pointy-toothed foe.

 

These nibbles aside, the story is an enjoyable and genuinely frightening read. Next up is another Victorian classic: Frankenstein.

 


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Discworld: It’s much more important than that

If there is such a thing as World Cup fever I must have genetic immunity, so it’s a rare day that I find myself reading a book about the beautiful game. But then, as all wives and bookish brothers know, football is more than just a game. That is doubly true when the football in question is taking place in Discworld.

This is the second time I’ve been drawn to the terraces by this novel. Like much of Sir Terry’s best work, there is great joy to be found in a return fixture (okay, I’ll stop with the football terms; I can see they’re bringing back uncomfortable memories of PE teachers and laps round the field). When re-reading a Pratchett, now that you don’t have the power of narrativia urging you ever onwards (pleasant though that is), you get to wallow in the word play, dig deep into the subtext, search out new jokes and new satirical pokes at that thing we call civilisation. Like sex, Discworld is often better the second time around.

So, onto the story. Set not this time in the melting pot of Ankh-Morpork, but in it’s equally colourful crab bucket (knowing Ankh-Morpork this is probably because someone stole the melting pot and melted it down for scrap) this Discworld outing begins with the wizards of the Unseen University discovering that their grant funding – and, much more importantly, their snack funding – is under threat. A forgotten condition in the will of an ancient benefactor stipulates that the wizards must play one game of foot-the-ball every hundred years or lose that considerable financial support. Time is almost up and there is a real risk second breakfast will have to be cancelled.

Not ones to take such things lying down – perhaps because their rotund forms might make it difficult to get back up again – the wizards arrange a match against the best (and worst) Ankh-Morpork’s rough and ready street teams have to offer. In amongst the build up to the sporting face-off, Pratchett weaves stories of redemption, of self-discovery, of Shakespearian love, and of one very special candle dribbler, who finds out what it means to mean something.

Like all the best sporting stories, Unseen Academicals is about the people, not the game. It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts. And of those taking part, while Mr Nutt can be said to be the player of the day, it was the matriarch of the Night Kitchen, Glenda Sugarbean, that stole the show for me. At the start of the tale she is trapped by tradition and the perceived expectations of those around her, always trying to be who she thinks she should be, rather than who she really is. Fear of the unknown has caged her spirit, but when that cage is broken and the clunking hammer of convention is banished from its Damoclean position she becomes an unstoppable force, brave enough to give even the Patrician of the city a stern ticking off.

Last time, I wrote about reading the right book at the wrong time. If there is a right time for this book it is when self-doubt creeps over you, when it tries to pull you down and make you feel small. The key to the appeal of football, as Pratchett rightly picks out, is to be part of something bigger, something united. It lifts you up and gives you strength: they aren’t called supporters for nothing. Those who enjoy Sir Terry’s writing draw that same strength from his work.

To be a Discworlder is to be part of a team. It is to belong. On simple numbers alone, you’ll never meet even 1% of that team, but there’s strength in that all the same. I for one will proudly wave those colours for long years to come.

 

From Discworld to Transylvania: next up is Dracula. I’ve actually already finished the book so my next post should be up in two flaps of a bats wings.