Another really pleasing response to Doctor Forrest from the blogosphere, namely at eMusing which is the web home of Emma Keens. Though June was a busy month in the publishing calendar Forrest was clearly brought out at just the right moment for Emma, since she writes of having been engaged in ‘a bit of a one-woman gothic horror revival for a few months now.’ Her write-up is full of informed and spot-on observations in relation to the gothic classics that influenced this book, and she expresses an admirably finessing sense of the genre’s more intricate details, to wit:
‘The story… certainly contains all the familiar ingredients of good gothic horror. A sense of the supernatural mixes with the corporeal, good intentions bristle with forbidden desire. Ghostly apparitions and half-recalled memories are portents of both good and evil. Buildings and nature (and even people) are imposing, alluring and yet tinged with the slightest hint of decay.’
On a stylistic level Emma also makes her criticisms deftly, and I must hold up my hands on the counts of ‘using five words when [I] could have used one’ and the copious ‘references to foreign language texts.’ I was also really intrigued by her comment that ‘[i]t would have been wonderful to have ended the third party narration perhaps a bit earlier, so that Dr Forrest’s confessions could be the first telling of some of the events that ended the story.’ I did consider this option in the writing, albeit not for long, or long enough? It had a clear appeal, most particularly as I tried to envisage matters from the reader’s POV. But… I just couldn’t see a way by that means to sustain the sort of tension and unfolding I had in mind. And so I went for that tried and trusted trick of introducing Forrest’s voice right up at the front of the novel – the Enigmatic Italicised Prologue – and then reserving him entirely for the back-end of proceedings.
At any rate it’s great to have one’s thoughts provoked in this way by a reader’s response, and it’s what I love in general about the sort of unchained ‘musings’, notes and queries that a really good book-blogger can offer – truly an educational opportunity for the author. Of course, I fully concede, this is all contingent on said blogger having a basically positive view of one’s book… And since Emma signs off by testifying that ‘the book had me gripped right until the last page’ and that she’s looking forward to the movie version, I’m obviously very happy in that regard – but grateful to her in any case for having taken the time to write up the book at length and invite other online readers to discuss.
From the Klimowski / Schejbal illustrated Jekyll & Hyde
The other day I made a contribution to Amazon’s Kindle blog: a list of what is billed as ‘definitive spine-chilling moments in [my] top five favourite novels of Victorian/gothic mystery and horror.’
And that describes it fairly enough. With a bit more space at my disposal I might have thrown in the self-unmasking of Matilda to Ambrosio in The Monk
, or the gruesome corpse-disposal ordered by Wilde’s anti-hero in The Picture of Dorian Gray
, or just something of the flavour of Laura’s descriptions of Carmilla
in Sheridan Le Fanu’s tale… But, no, I went with what I went with. And of course I could have made multiple selections from said titles. (No Renfield? Alas…) Anyhow, the works I discuss are these, and in this order – their names will not surprise you:
5. Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
4. HG Wells, The Invisible Man
3. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
2. Bram Stoker, Dracula
1. Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The ‘moments’ I chose are here
but, reader, believe me, I would fain know what are your own…
Is Robert Aickman the twentieth century’s ‘most profound writer of what we call horror stories and he, with greater accuracy, preferred to call strange stories’? Such is the opinion of Peter Straub, author of Ghost Story, voiced in a discerning introduction to Aickman’s collection The Wine Dark Sea. If you accept Aickman’s self-classification within the ‘strange’ then you might say he’s in a league of his own, and I’d be partial to that argument. (It would make him rather akin to Poe, who seems to me the only true contender in the field of ‘tales of mystery and imagination.’) But Horror is obviously the most compelling genre label that exists on the dark/unnatural side of literary endeavour, and it might be simplest and most useful to the cause of Aickman’s renown if we just said that, yes, Robert Aickman was the best horror writer of the last hundred years.
I only read Aickman for the first time in 2010 on the happy occasion of becoming the publisher of some of his work through my function at the Faber Finds imprint. But what a blessed discovery! Doctor Forrest was already at the presses by the time I read The Wine Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust, so I don’t have to own up to any express hommages; but the fact is that so elegantly and comprehensively did Aickman encompass all the strengths and complexities of the horror story that it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner in the form could stand anywhere but in his shadow. His construction of tales is immaculate. True, there is probably a typical Aickman protagonist, usually if not always a man, who does not fit so well with others, somewhat alone and neurotic to a degree – but that neurosis is carefully made and subtly conveyed to the reader. Aickman’s management of terror is masterly, because he seems always to proceed from a realism where detail accumulates without fuss, the recognisable material world seems wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and the protagonist is proceeding toward death as if in a dream. For all Aickman’s seeming austerity many of his stories also have a strong erotic current: there is, again, something dreamlike to how quickly in Aickman an attraction can proceed to a physical expression, and yet he also creates a sense of dread whenever skin touches skin – as if desire (and the female) are forms of trap, varieties of doom. If that is the sort of theme that rightly causes us to think of horror as a little reactionary and neurotic in itself, then all one can say is that Aickman executes it always with great panache.
‘The Stains’, from The Unsettled Dust, is only one story to which I would bend the knee in respect of Doctor Forrest. This account of a widower’s falling in love with (and plunging to his doom through) an appealing young woman (who is in fact some kind of dryad) effortlessly achieves the sort of effect I have strived for in the chapter of Forrest entitled ‘A Mermaid’s Tale.’ And ‘The Fetch’ from The Wine Dark Sea seems to me a significant contribution to the great tradition of Scottish Gothic, with its confessional protagonist who rightly judges himself ‘a haunted man’ and its grim faceless wraith, ‘the old carlin’ who emerges from the sea to augur a death in the family. When said haunted man finally finds himself caged in his family home, watching the carlin watching him from a perch outdoors up high on a broken wall, he reflects that ‘such levitations are said to be not uncommon in the remoter parts of Scotland’; while the reader nods and thinks ‘Aye, not uncommon indeed…’
I was pleased to see that the FT asked the excellent Scottish novelist and broadcaster Louise Welsh to review Doctor Forrest for this weekend’s edition of the paper, and her write-up exhibits an easily learned appreciation of some of the great works by which I was influenced, most eminently Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. That she feels I managed to do something fresh with this time-honoured material is something I’m very gratified by.
‘Overreaching scientists whose morals lag behind their professional abilities are as much a staple of gothic horror as asylums, vampirish beauties, graveyards, doppelgängers and dead people who refuse to lie down. Richard T Kelly’s The Possessions of Doctor Forrest features all of the above and more… Kelly has embraced the gothic and he gleefully acknowledges his literary forebears… There is a pleasure in anticipating how a well-known tale will play out this time and, in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest, Richard T Kelly has put his own original stamp on the genre.’