All this by way of saying that it means the world to me that the 2011 Durham Book Festival has picked The Possessions of Doctor Forrest for its first countywide civic reading project, and has released a thousand copies of the novel for free distribution through local reading groups, libraries, civic and cultural venues and hand-picked ‘ambassadors.’
The effort has been directed by the truly superb New Writing North agency, who gave a no less staunch support to Crusaders back in 2008 – such that with that book, too, a number of reading groups much more accustomed to spending their valuable reading time on proven/bestselling titles by known/acclaimed names were persuaded to give my stuff a try-out. If you’re not a front-rank recognisable novelist then it’s a very, very precious experience to get your work commended to readers in this manner for inspection and discussion. Consequently you do get a lot of straight-spoken opinions coming back at you; but in this day and age it’s hard to imagine a more meaningful and educational experience for a writer. In these situations the readers who have enjoyed a book tend to evince an embrace of it that’s hugely more ardent than any review you could imagine. And with those who weren’t so struck on it… well, the opinion will usually be candid and also fresh, free of the formula and conveyor-nature of newspaper write-ups. I certainly learned a lot on Crusaders, and very much look forward to the same once Durham’s had a read and made its mind up on Doctor Forrest.
I was asked by Durham Book Festival to create content for a Reading Guide to be used by anyone seeking a bit of background on the novel and what inspired it; along with a set of questions for consideration by reading groups. That guide has been very handsomely designed and is downloadable here.
The Festival is also programming a selection of gothic-themed movies which will tour Durham by mobile cinema, and there will be a number of guided walks around the city that explore the gothic architecture and the darker side of local history. A writers’ workshop exploring Doctor Forrest will happen on Friday 21 October
And on Tuesday 18 October I will be talking about the novel at the Gala Theatre, as well as reading selections from Doctor Forrest and also (abetted by actors) some of the great Victorian gothic classics.
A whole lot of Forrest, then, in Durham come October. ‘Come and play with us’, as those sweet little girls say in The Shining…
Having rehearsed here the influence on me of a good many of the great and obvious classics of Victorian gothic, I turn a little belatedly to Wilde’s Dorian Gray (1891) – a novel the idea of which I like rather more the work itself, I must confess. As a study of ‘the terrible pleasure of a double life’ it is of course a kind of cousin to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but very much the junior partner. Not to say there aren’t many elements in it that I enjoy a good deal. Wilde’s very fine, only slightly embellished evocation of the streets and physical facades of central London, their handsomeness turned eerie during the condition of twilight especially; his fairly heady accumulation of fin de siecle aestheticism in the descriptions of decor; the relishable gruesomeness of the passage where Dorian blackmails an old ex-friend to dispose of a corpse on his behalf… Truth be told, the bloodiness of that last passage comes to some extent as a cheering remedy to the chill bloodlessness of all the fancy furnishings, and their famous debt to the A Rebours of J.K. Huysman, a work that amused me a fair bit as a teenager but which I’ve never been able to feel the same about since a visit to Gabriele d’Annunzio’s skin-crawlingly decadent play-palace in Gardone Riviera, gilded turtle and all…
But hark at me. For what reason in Doctor Forrest is Robert Forrest’s romper-room boudoir octagonal? And why does he keep an antique cassone at the foot at his bed? Et cetera…
The recent 2009 movie version of Wilde is a handsome enough piece, and could be taken as one more example of how, given the influence of ‘steampunk’, the Victorian era on film is now almost a byword for a kind of stylised frock-coated fast-cutting dynamism. But the problem with the story is the protagonist – a void, really, partially filled on the page by Wilde arranging words like flowers but on screen neither an engaging anti-hero or a properly menacing villain…
‘The family of noise is here’, sang Adam Ant in happier days, ‘and it’s come to save you and me – in Croydon…’ Here’s hoping, then, that I too may be saved in this manner. I am delighted to be invited to Croydon this Saturday, as a guest of the Central Library, to read from and discuss the strange ‘spine-chilling’ case of Doctor Forrest: that’s 17 September, 2:30 PM, Level 1, Croydon Central Library, tickets free, Adults Only…
Kelly describes writing The Possessions of Dr Forrest as a gesture of love to the gothic novel and to Stevenson in particular. Thus his novel preserves many of the characteristics of the original: the London setting, the structure and narrative style. He uses diaries and letters though not email. I’m a traditionalist, he said, in the sense that I still punctuate my text messages! His narrators are mostly male. 1 detective, 3 doctors (albeit with different specialisms). In keeping with the intensification of 21st-century angst, all 3 doctors are in crisis. Professional respectability and success is no guarantor of personal happiness. Ironically it is the psychiatrist Dr Hartford who is suffering the most.
“My profession long ago dispensed with Satan, of course, but initially advanced no further than to the notion that madness thrived in the sufferer’s blood, and could be drawn out by a sensible application of leeches. What are the fruits of wisdom that centuries of enquiry now bestow upon me? “Get some drugs into this man! Dampen down those symptoms!””
Psychiatry may have dispensed with the devil but this novel isn’t so adamant. Torment comes in many forms and most of it – in the pre-confessional sections of the novel certainly – emanates from females. The balance is redressed – somewhat- by the male-induced problems of Eloise – Dr Hartford’s patient and the sole female narrator. The greatest destruction, however, is the crazed ambition of Dr Forrest.
His disappearance right at the very beginning of the novel starts a downward spiral that eventually sucks in everyone. We can see this happening, even if the characters can’t but it’s not until Dr Forrest’s confessions that we understand the absolute diabolical nature of his actions. Never likeable, even when viewed through the sympathetic eyes of his friends in prior sections, he transforms through his own words into the most loathsome and contemptible creature I’ve ever read. Just how low can you go? Think about it and I’ll wager Forrest goes lower. Jekyll and Hyde? Jekyll and Hyder, more like.
I’m happy to report that I saw no Dr Forrest in the author (at least not at the festival). And I don’t believe that it was a mask. Kelly is such a genial character. Happy to chat on twitter (@RichTKelly) I love his dry, sardonic wit. On surgeons: The sense of their own prowess is so high, they are happy to have observers see the genius in their own hands. At the signing I had to ask how writing this darker than dark novel affected his head. Well, he said, my wife was very glad when I was finished. She wanted it out of the house!
You have been warned.
For those who are truly curious I’d hazard to say that there is plenty of good material to be found on Doctor Forrest courtesy of the new Faber podcast, made by George Miller, with whom I also discussed my debut novel Crusaders back in 2008. Some of the podcast material is made very conveniently accessible at the Faber ‘Thought Fox’ blog: here (if you scroll down a little) you will find a 20-minute audio interview with yours truly and also 4-5 minutes worth of on-camera interview. And at George Miller’s own Podularity site you will find a download of the interview but also three extracts from the novel read by myself – and if you would like to proceed to these readings directly from here let me do the linking and say that the first is the voice of Dr Grey Lochran from Chapter 1, turning over the details of Forrest’s disappearance; the second is Dr Steven Hartford from Chapter 18, relating the bizarre and violent behaviour of David Tregaskis just prior to Eloise Keaton’s discharging from Blakedene Hall; and the third is Doctor Forrest, from his ‘Confession’, admitting to the ‘secret wound’ within that drove him to his terrible crimes.
“The photos we obtained show a fellow very presentable for his age, if somewhat saturnine in looks. Physically he was in decent shape though a habitual drinker, and partial to some soft drug use. ‘A man of night and day’ is how his friend [Dr Grey] Lochran describes him, albeit fondly, attributing this to what he calls ‘a touch of the Jekyll-and-Hyde’ inherent in the surgical profession. That is to say, the incredible rigour of the work produces a commensurate need for a private cutting-loose, what in Forrest’s case Lochran quaintly calls ‘carousing.’ (Mr Hyde can take other forms too, I would say: Lochran, initially open and affable, can switch to a very stern and short-tempered force coming down the phone-line)…”
Now, I appreciate that a reader coming to Doctor Forrest with a basic sense of the scenario might consider the foregoing just a little too ‘on-the-nose.’ Must the immortal Henry Jekyll, and his equally deathless shadow Edward Hyde, be invoked in a modern story that would seem already to owe no small debt, both structurally and in smaller ‘touches’, to Robert Louis Stevenson’s most famous creation(s)?
I can see that argument. My defence is only that the idea of ‘a touch of the Jekyll-and-Hyde’ being ‘inherent in the surgical profession’ is not one I invented myself but rather a theory that was expounded to me by a surgeon with whom I spoke when I was first researching the general terrain of the novel. But maybe I’m making too much of a minor coincidence? Given the enduring force of Stevenson’s allegory, might it not be that many more professions could be characterized by that touch? Politicans, schoolmasters, bus drivers, oral hygienists…?
Moreover: the sense in which that surgeon meant when I spoke to him was that ‘Hyde’ is the professional steeliness of the surgical practitioner, such that when Jekyll is at home or otherwise supposedly at leisure, with partner or family or whoever, still the phone call from the hospital might come, and ‘Hyde’ might have to start dispensing swift and hard-edged wisdom down the line on an emergency matter, having moments before been playing catch-ball with his toddler or whatever.
So the Mr Hyde in every surgeon (contra moi) is not some dissolute, depraved wraith. But then precisely what was the depravity of Stevenson’s Hyde? Just how dreadful are his crimes? The reader is not really to know, for Stevenson gives us only glimpses – the brutal trampling upon a girl-child, the killing of Sir Danvers Carew. The mystery of what Jekyll-as-Hyde really desires or is driven by, precisely what evil force in himself Jekyll unleashed, is a quite considerably thick fog. The moviemakers, with an eye on the contemporaneous Whitechapel ‘Ripper’, nearly always interpret the force as repressed lust – a respectable cloak of Victorian hypocrisy shrugged off by the pursuit of lustmord. (Perhaps this is why Vladimir Nabokov in his celebrated lecture on the work urges his students to forget, ‘obliterate’ in their minds all staged or cinematic adaptations of it.) But the dramatists were onto this angle immediately after the book’s appearance in 1886. Recently I was interested to learn that Stevenson complained about a stage version of Jekyll to the editor of the New York Sun in 1887. “… [P]eople are so filled full of folly and inverted lust, that they can think of nothing but sexuality”, he wrote, insisting that it was Jekyll’s “selfishness and cowardice” that let out the beast Hyde, “not this poor wish to have a woman”.
How about that perhaps equally poor wish to have a man? Nabokov was keen to tease out the shade of the homoerotic in Jekyll: the absence of women from the story, the intriguing coincidence that 1885 saw the criminalization by parliament of homosexual acts between men. I’m not persuaded, but perhaps it’s better to say I am in (at least) two minds. The gothic mode always exhibits some interest in the taboo or the ostensibly perverse – ‘the unspeakable’, stuff that dare not speak its name – and I’m happy for the mist of ambiguity to remain around Jekyll and Hyde.
A word on the structure of the story, and Forrest’s debt to same: Ian Rankin, a celebrated and most perspicacious admirer of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, wrote a fine foreword to a re-issue of the text, extracted in the Guardian. Stevenson fans will find much to celebrate in Rankin’s piece – in particular, perhaps, his stress on the story’s ‘complex narrative’, which is much more tricksy than those umpteen film versions that doggedly take Jekyll’s point of view from inside his laboratory as he struggles to perfect his ‘transcendental medicine’. Whereas in Stevenson, as Rankin points out, “Jekyll himself figures only as a friend of the other characters and narrators – right up until the revelation provided by his “confession”. We start the book in the company of two gentlemen called Utterson and Enfield…”
Can readers who encountered the films before the original take the same pleasure, the proper pleasure, in the story’s unfolding? “Sadly,” Rankin writes, “we’ll never know the thrill experienced by this explosive book’s original audience. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a work of suspense, but we all know the twist these days, don’t we?”
All I can say is that while still a schoolboy I’d seen about a zillion adaptations of Jekyll without having savoured the ur-text, but only once I had Stevenson did everything become clear, gloriously so. For me much the best film of Stevenson’s tale is actually the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton version of Valerie Martin’s hommage/rewrite Mary Reilly, but it was a picture that thrill-seeking audiences didn’t warm up to. It looks better every year, though – like its inspiration.