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74. In praise of Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (A BFI Compendium)

gothic-compendium-001-cover-3d_1I have before me the newly published Gothic: The Dark Heart of Film (A BFI Compendium). It’s a remarkably handsome volume and, I’d have thought, a must-have for enthusiasts and students in this ever more ardently studied field. I contributed a chapter to the book (on Satanism and witchcraft, naturally) but it’s really not for that reason that I consider the work overall to be essential. I’m just a one-time gothic novelist, not truly a specialist in the discipline; however, inter alia, fellow contributors such as Guillermo del Toro, Marina Warner, Christopher Frayling, Kim Newman, Anne Billson, Mark Gatiss and Ramsey Campbell most eminently are. The richness and variety of this collection, expertly assembled by the BFI’s James Bell and superbly illustrated to boot, are to be savoured, in more than one sitting.

The book marks a BFI season that begins shortly and will run into 2014. A fine taster of what lies in store was offered at the end of August with a ‘Monster Weekend’ of special screenings in the forecourt of the British Museum: I went along to the first of these, the movie being Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, and thought it a really delighting occasion.

I notice that I’m using a lot of ‘pleasure-words’ in relation to the gothic here, which, funnily enough, is the spirit in which I wrote my chapter for the book. For a long time I more or less believed that the whole origin of the horror genre was quite aptly encapsulated by the ‘celebrated’ line from the Catholic Office of the Dead, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me’ (‘The fear of death disturbs me.’) Our mortality, and that of those whom we love, is after all the best if not the only thing in this world to be afraid of.

However, horror consumed as a cultural experience clearly has to offer pleasure of sorts too, even if a somewhat masochistic one. Horror might be said to indulge a certain phantasy about the existence of wickedness and depravity in the world: how it might indeed triumph over good, or how, at least, certain souls (deserving or not) could succumb to it. In the process, wickedness and depravity may be dressed up with certain superficially alluring aspects – and when it comes to such costuming, cinema is supreme among the arts. But at such a puppet show it’s easier to spot the strings.

There are many aspects of the gothic that have great powers to haunt and disturb and unnerve us, and gothic works that invoke devils and demons and necromancers (what I thumbnail in my essay for convenience as ‘the gothic occult’) are by no means excluded from that. Their particular powers, though, feel to me a tad reduced. The gothic occult is predicated on the existence of evil as a metaphysical force in the world: a thirsty evil, one that wants to keep its infection spreading. A really bleak gothic occult will propose a black pessimistic view of Man’s Fate – that the material world belongs to Satan and goodness is unattainable, on this plane at least, etc. That all sounds scary enough on paper, and can be so on screen.

And yet this particular version (or explanation) of a metaphysical evil seems to me to require – how can I put it? – a more than usual bound into the suspension of disbelief. By contrast, the idea of a ‘ghost’ – where a ghost might come from, what it might look like, what its motives might be – seems to me endlessly recyclable and potentially mysterious, fit (if the mood is right) to inveigle itself even into our wide-awake rational thoughts. Ghosts appear to me as the absolute lifeblood of the gothic. But then to speak of devils, of Satan… of a personification of evil, an antagonist to some almighty king of the heavens, a figure at the head of a large hierarchical structure committed to humanity’s ultimate catastrophe – well, this is to confront the reader or viewer with a heftier (and consequently less nimble and persuasive) proposition. Having written a novel in the Faust mode I appreciate the size of the ask, and accept that one’s first duty under these conditions is to entertain.

The best, most persuasive work of fiction that I know of to imagine Satan’s immanence in our world is Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest (which is also perhaps the most decidedly gothic title anyone could ever append to a novel.) If I can’t immediately tempt you to read it, please try this superb interview with Mailer about the novel, written up by Philip Weiss for the New York Observer. And do keep your eye on #bfigothic.

A footnote: when I was readying my Gothic chapter for the presses with BFI editor James Bell I was not surprised and quite amused to hear from him that I ought to try to trim back on a rather prolix attempt I’d made to define exactly what constitutes the gothic in cinema. Apparently, more than one of my fellow contributors had fallen down the same dark well… and the effort is a little doomed, one has to say. There’s nothing exactly Gothic in cinema, but it’s generally agreed that we seem to know it when we see it, or feel it. Gothic is a visual style and a mood, an atmosphere, enhanced above all by production design – one of gloom, intrigue, dread, a pervasive sense of evil, which may well (but need not) materialize in outright horrors. And in the case of the gothic occult, this production design leads you to dark secret places where cabals gather and rituals occur, such as the solemn black mass and the orgiastic walpurgisnacht. There you may also see the goat’s head and the horned man, the grimoire, the beckoning finger of Mephistopheles – all that.


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73. A new skin for Doctor Forrest… forthcoming in paperback, March 1 2012

Dare you walk that North London street again…?

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72. ‘Kelly’s brand of modern macabre’: A Durham Reads/Book Festival write-up

Yes, I’ve been away awhile… Been doing a little surgery, heh heh. On myself, heh heh. But I’m sure I’m still recognisable as me, whoever that is, heh heh… (Enough cod-EC Comics yucks. Ed.)
I should have linked to this nice write-up of the Dr Forrest event in Durham a good deal sooner. It’s by a promising young scribe named Marian Shek. And it brings back cheerful memories of what was a very lively evening, which Marian pleasingly thumbnails as “a celebration of the rich tradition” of literary Gothic, through the glass of “Kelly’s brand of modern macabre” (heh heh…). I like the expression “delicious darkness”, just as I’m pleased to be commended for “rich, luxurious language” (as opposed to, say, odd archaic anachronisms…) and to have it observed that my onstage manner is “teasing as ever”… Which is where, on this occasion, we came in.

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71. D.E. Meredith on Doctor Forrest: “Howling-at-the-moon kind of Gothic”

The author Denise Meredith is someone with whom I’ve lately become Twitter pals, and she and I are kindred spirits in our love of the fog-beset and gas-lit aura of Victorian crime literature. In this line Denise has begun a series of mysteries centred on the double-act of pioneering forensic scientist Professor Adolphus Hatton and his mortuary sidekick Albert Roumande. The first was Devoured (2010), the second, just published, The Devil’s Ribbon, a deliciously dark and page-turning treat for all souls who are similarly drawn to the red meat of sensation.
Denise was recently asked by the Writers Read blog to offer some impressions of things she’s enjoyed reading lately, and she was kind enough to give Doctor Forrest the following reference (in which I especially like the comment about women):

“This book is a one off. Highly original, despite the fact the book is (in many ways) a homage to all things gothic – think Dorian Gray, meets Bram Stoker, meets Dr Faustus meets Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde meets I’m not sure what. It’s about three middle aged men, once schoolboy friends, now medical doctors. One of them – Dr Forrest, a vain, sexy cosmetic surgeon – goes missing, presumed dead. The men have complex relationships with each other, mainly revolving around failed ambitions, lies, envy, ego and their relationships with women. It’s very intriguing on the last score, especially reading it as a woman. I loved Kelly’s emotional honesty, his take on London which was spot on from the slightly scuzzy impression of Parliament Hill and Hampstead Heath to the oh so hopelessly middle class-ness of serving up scallops and salsa verde for dinner. As if. Only in Hampstead, darling! I relished the descriptions of cloying bourgeoisie pretension, overarched by howling at the moon kind of gothic. Just what the doctor ordered, especially as my current book’s set in London, too!”

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70. Durham Reads ‘Doctor Forrest’, with Diverse & Fascinating Opinions…

Last week I had the pleasure of taking Doctor Forrest to the Durham Book Festival, this after 7 weeks’ worth of the novel being widely and freely distributed around the county as part of the Festival’s first ever ‘big read’ initiative. My author event at the Gala Theatre last Tuesday night was a delight for me on umpteen counts, maybe chief among them that I was joined onstage by a trio of excellent actors who got on their feet and performed some choice filleted passages from Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Monk, interspersed with my own (thematically complementary) readings from Doctor Forrest. The chairman of the conversation was the excellent Dr Simon James of Durham University, some of whose students were in the audience and who are all, clearly, relishing the Gothic module of their Literature degree. And most of the rest of the house was comprised of people who had read the novel as part of their regular book groups, thanks to the Festival’s giveaway munificence, and who were kind enough to make the trek to Durham so as to hear what I had to say for myself.
Feedback from those reading groups was regularly relayed back to me over the seven weeks of the ‘Durham Reads’ countywide project, and the comments certainly made for a valuable and thought-provoking mix. I can gather them broadly if partially under the following headings:


‘This novel is intelligent and interesting with well-drawn characters – intriguing storyline that draws the reader to the end.’
‘Found this novel very fascinating and would read other gothic inspired novels by this author.’
‘Enjoyed it. Shades of Dorian Gray…’
‘Echoes of Jekyll & Hyde, a fascinating exploration of the gothic genre.’
‘Liked the diary format & Confession at the end a little like Frankenstein’s Monster.’
‘Weird, wonderful and very enjoyable.’
‘Loved the book. My suspicions on ‘whodunnit’ crept in on page 73.’
‘Read this on holiday and really enjoyed it.’
‘My favourite character was Dr. Forrest – power crazy!’
‘I think R.T Kelly would be a very good crime novelist.’
‘Brutality of the medical language added greatly to the genre.’
‘Very successful plot. I didn’t guess what was happening until the Confession.’
‘If you enjoy a good mystery it is worth taking time to read this one.’


‘I enjoyed it from part IV…’
‘Once I was past first 5-6 chapters it gripped my interest. I was hooked on finding out what happened.’
‘Style initially off-putting, but once into the story plot enthralling.’


‘Enjoyed the first three quarters of the book but found the end unsettling.’
‘The consequences of the last part were evil and menacing – I was glad to finish it.’
‘Dark and depressing. I stopped reading at Page 273…’
‘Shocking and disturbing story.’
‘I found it rather horrid…’


‘The Victorian style of writing and the modern setting seemed to conflict with each other at times.’
‘Style of writing irritating… Not so much Poe, or Wilde as Alistair Crowley!’
‘Words used archaic and not used in this present day.’
‘There was too much punctuation!’


‘Parts 1 & 2 interesting, Part 3 left me so confused I gave up.’
‘The narrative is good but i don’t think i ever cottoned on to what happened to Dr. Forrest.’
‘Confusion amongst the group as to whether or not he murdered his victims.’
‘No suspense or creeping horror, he took over too many people.’


‘I tried very hard and did read the whole of the book, but could not come to terms with the story, demons and strange goings-on.’
‘Beautifully written, easy to read, shame the story was pure rubbish.’
‘Was none the wiser at the end of the story, very far-fetched.’
‘Better than I expected. Content ridiculous. Not convincing.’


‘Disturbing, disappointing, but the cover art was great.’
‘Nice clear print.’


‘Cover of book makes me think its going to be weird. Is this horror?’


‘Does anyone else think author used old ideas from previous books…?’

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69. FantasyCon2011: The Possessions of Doctor Forrest by Brighton Pier…

So I’m gazing into the depths of the black mirror of my first ever fantasy-fiction convention… FantasyCon 2011, in Brighton, this Saturday October 1. I’m down to be reading from Doctor Forrest at 1030 in Room 134 of the Royal Albion Hotel. Beyond that, who knows…?
My slot is between Julia Knight and Reggie Oliver, so I’ll have to bring my game and hope that their fanbases might look kindly, if darkly, on my sacrificial offering. Perhaps I’m lucky to finish just before Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon, gets started for a reading/Q&A in the main assembly space at 1100.
The amusing conundrum is the choice of what to read for 20 minutes or so. One gets into a certain pattern after having done a few events with a book, and it’s only in the last few outings that I’ve tried to vary things a little, which can be a pleasant surprise to oneself. Until now I’ve vaguely favoured readings focused on character, theme, mystery, intrigue, mood… But in a crowded programme of experienced thrill-practioners, perhaps I ought to offer the closest I can to the red meat of sensation…? Some selections from the ‘Confession’, perhaps? Murder by scalpel, radical surgery, taboo seduction, perhaps even ‘the speculum scene’…?
Anyhow, if you’re going to FantasyCon this Saturday or know anybody who is, please do speak of me and speak kindly and let them know where I’ll be at 1030 – that’s room 134, the Royal Albion! – otherwise, being a stranger by the shore and all that, it’ll likely be a case of in and out and barely time for fish and chips on the pier before I’m back off to London, no doubt with Quadrophenia on my iPod.

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68. Phantom ‘Themes from Doctor Forrest’: My Body is a Cage by Peter Gabriel

No detailed explanation needful as to why this song (originally by the Montreal band Arcade Fire) fits the musical/thematic bill for the Doctor… A little should be said, though, in praise of its interpreter on this version, Peter Gabriel.
Scratch My Back – Gabriel’s 2010 album of cover versions, from whence this comes – spotlights his gifts as a vocalist/interpreter; and Gabriel has always done exceptionally interesting things with his voice and the recording of it, for the sake of drama and feeling and shading of mood. Indeed some of his finest vocal performances have been wordless – chants, groans, ululations, as on his magnificent score for Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. His creativity is restless, questing, ever transforming.
Gabriel has been in music for 40 years, long enough to have worn more than a few cloaks, and in any case it was clear from the get-go that he was especially interested in costume changes – in personae and shape-shifting. The last time I saw Gabriel play live, in 2003, he wore a black ensemble that seemed halfway between the designer garb of a tonsured Japanese monk and the prison uniform of Hannibal Lecter. A few years later it struck me that his learned, kindly and yet profoundly troubled bearing would make him a rather wonderful Doctor Who.
His early fame in Genesis is still an undiscovered mystery to me, as I was too young at the time and have stayed suspicious of the era ever since. But by the early 1980s he was clearly a radical experimental musical force in the Eno/Bowie/Byrne mould, and his fourth solo album, with its special marriage of rhythmic/melodic and lyrical/cerebral qualities, made a huge impression on me as a youngster. Subsequent MTV/pop success didn’t change him: thus the Secret World album in 1992, his finest in my view, conceived and recorded amid five years of therapy, with the avowed intention of exploring his dark and disagreeable side.
It’s maybe easily overlooked now – since the current incarnation of Gabriel cuts such an avuncular figure, the consummate late-career artist-activist, instigator of good works and friend to Nelson Mandela and Mary Robinson – but the Gabriel songbook testifies to a seething quality in him, clearly derived in places from a history of torrid personal relations. As he sings it in Digging in the Dirt: ‘I feel it in my head, I feel it in my toes / I feel it in my sex, that’s the place it goes…’ Clearly he has at times wanted to scare himself, or scare his listeners, or both, while simultaneously wishing to drag into the light the source of that fear – cf. some of the songbook’s eerier entries, Mother of Violence, Intruder, Darkness… And for the listener as evidently for Gabriel himself I believe these songs can offer carthasis – a word that, in its multiple uses and meanings, has been as intriguingly fluid as Gabriel himself.

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