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!”
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…
A lovely write-up here by Jonathan Hourigan (scroll down a bit):
Richard T Kelly has followed his first novel, the chunky – in both its size and ambition – Crusaders, with a beguiling, Gothic-inflected thriller.
At the heart of the narrative are three Edinburgh childhood friends, now respected middle-aged doctors living in London. When hard-living but deeply-troubled cosmetic surgeon Robert Forrest – his own once good looks now fading – goes missing his friends, psychiatrist Steve Hartford and paediatric surgeon Grey Lochran, are gradually drawn into their own investigations, a web of deceit, menace and fatality.
For much of its duration the novel inhabits the points of view of Hartford and Lochran, illuminating middle-aged male anxieties with psychological acuity and lightness of touch, as well as driving Kelly’s deliciously sly thriller onwards. When point of view switches to that of Doctor Forrest himself – and we have never really believed him dead and are dying to hear from him – all Hell breaks loose. It’s an audacious shift of tone and largely successful, prompting the reinterpretation of much that has gone before and clarifying the novel’s thematic purposes.
This is a confident and bold novel about death, the desire for immortality, vanity and much besides. Its moral references as well as its form – letters, diaries, interviews and reports from a variety of points of view – are those of nineteenth century Gothic fiction. Doctors Frankenstein and Jekyll, Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray and Count Dracula all have a place in this dark, troubling, uncertain but finally, intensely human universe.
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…