Tag Archives: gothic

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:

SOME CUSTOMERS WERE FULLY SATISFIED

‘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.’

SOME WARMED UP TO IT

‘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.’

SOME FOUND IT TOO DARK

‘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…’

SOME FOUND THE PROSE TOO FUSSY

‘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!’

SOME FOUND IT HARD TO FOLLOW

‘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.’

SOME THOUGHT IT ALTOGETHER TOO FANCIFUL

‘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.’

SOME FOUND UNEXPECTED THINGS TO COMMEND…

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

SOME WERE UNLIKELY TO FIND ANYTHING TO COMMEND

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

AND AT LEAST ONE READER HAD ME BANG TO RIGHTS

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

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67. Durham Reads ‘Possessions of Doctor Forrest’: Darkness at the 2011 BookFest

Inside Durham's mighty Cathedral: Photo - Sarah Harris

You have to know that for me there’s no finer place on earth than County Durham. It’s where us Kellys come from – at least where my great-grandparents had got themselves to by the dawn of the 1900s: South Moor and Burnhope, Pelton Fell and Eden Hill. Which is why a goodly chunk of my first novel Crusaders was set in the DH1 postcode – Durham City, Framwellgate Moor, Newton Hall, the exquisitely-named Pity Me. Evocative nomenclature comes with the territory up there, and in Crusaders the main character John Gore is seen in his childhood to be a keen collector of intriguing place-names that point to his future vocation as a solitary Anglican priest: Craghead, Monk Hesleden, Quaking Houses, Sacriston.
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

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66. Wilde’s ‘Dorian Gray’: Deadly Narcissus

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…

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