Bram Stoker – Dracula

Dracula

It’s been over twenty years since I last read ‘Dracula’ and I was a little surprised to find that my opinion about it this time was essentially the same. It’s 50% utterly wonderful, a wildly evocative mystery story with enough half-spoken to lead to a century of derivative works, none of which can quite capture its unique atmosphere. The first part of the book largely falls into this category.

But then there’s also the 50% pointless tedium, lifeless characters writing long letters about how they had a meeting and how wonderful another boring character is. Aside from possibly Van Helsing, the characters are so thinly drawn it’s sometimes breathtaking. Quincy, for example, has the defining feature of being American, and that’s pretty much it. Lucy is the worst though, surely the most insipid personality ever put on a page (and praised to the heavens for being braindead in such a delicate, ladylike way,) she only gains any character when she is killed and brought back  as a vampire, only for the others to be physically repulsed by her passion to the point of driving a stake through her heart. I’m sure there has been a great deal written about what this says about Stoker’s view of female sexuality, none of it very positive.

In spite of all of this I still loved reading it again. The best parts are absolutely worth sitting though the dull sections for, and if you’re anything like me you can also enjoy imagining what you would do with it if you were Bram Stoker’s editor.

Bram Stoker – Dracula
Bram Stoker – Dracula (free text at Project Gutenberg)
Bram Stoker – Dracula (BBC radio adaptation)
Bram Stoker – Dracula (free audiobook at Librivox)

…and here’s a clip from perhaps the most famous adaptation, the one with Bela Lugosi from 1931. Unfortunately the film gets even more bogged down in its second act than the book does, but this scene shows off both Lugosi and the superb set design.

H. G. Wells – The Island of Doctor Moreau

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Probably the least well-remembered of Wells’s three groundbreaking science fiction works of the late 1890s, The Island of Doctor Moreau has suffered even more then The Time Machine from a series of poor quality adaptations, and an odd sort of uncertainty of what the point of the story is. Whether you view the book as pleasingly ambiguous or confused in its ideas, it’s still a pleasing combination of proto-sci-fi and gothic horror, reminiscent of Tom Baker era Dr Who.

The Island of Doctor Moreau
The Island of Doctor Moreau (full text at Project Gutenberg)
The Island of Doctor Moreau (free audiobook at Librivox)

J. Meade Falkner – The Lost Stradivarius

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If obsessively uncovering secrets through ancient sound is our job here, then this is very much on-topic. It’s not exactly an obscure occult text, but The Lost Stradivarius is a great ghost story anyway, Falkner pitching it at a sweet spot somewhere between The Great God Pan and the works of M. R. James. It’s a long short story or perhaps a short novella, in any case worth an hour or so of your time.

The Lost Stradivarius
The Lost Stradivarius (free text at Project Gutenberg)
The Lost Stradivarius (free audio at Librivox)

 

H. G. Wells – The Time Machine

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Looking back at people looking forward never fails to fascinate – in order to judge predictions, of course, but also because of what these stories tell us about the cutting edge of thought and values at the time. On the whole The Time Machine works well from this sort of perspective, the predictions are far too far into the future to be judged, and the concepts do seem at least modern in a pre-war sort of way. As a work of literature, it starts well, sags quite a bit in the middle (or perhaps the reveal about the morlocks was shocking at some point – it isn’t now), then gets its act together again at the end.

Time travel was not an original concept, but H. G. Wells coined the term “time machine” and his concept of a sort of fourth dimensional vehicle is still the one we tend to go to when we create these kinds of stories. The ideas of The Time Machine are still everywhere, but generally not unmediated – the film adaptations have all been pretty terrible.

The Time Machine
The Time Machine (Full Text at archive.org)
The Time Machine (Audiobook at Librivox)

 

Rudyard Kipling and The Jungle Book

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I’m sorry to say that I’ve previously only been familiar with the Disney version of The Jungle Book, and while I was aware that the original was different, I didn’t realise that the almost entirely different story of Mowgli was only one of five included. Among the others we have the also-fairly-well-known story of Riki-Tikki-Tavi, a mongoose that saves a family by killing a couple of cobras and smashing their eggs, and ‘The While Seal’ which is about a seal (so not in the jungle) finding new a island where his friends and family will not be graphically slaughtered by humans. The mix of ecological concern and moralistic anthropomorphism does seem to be of another age, but the lack of condescension towards different cultures (and in fact different species!) is almost unique within an imperial context, and that’s most likely why it has survived as a cultural touchstone (and why ‘The White Man’s Burden’ has acquired quite a different reputation – but that’s for another time.)

Rudyard Kipling – The Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling – The Jungle Book (full text)
Rudyard Kipling – The Jungle Book (free audiobook at Librivox)
In Our Time podcast on Rudyard Kipling

George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody

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The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole of its day, The Diary Of A Nobody is perhaps less hilarious than it was back in 1892, but it’s no less readable and seems to evoke its age better than any of the supposedly naturalist contemporary fiction. By reading it I have learned that:

  • Dull, respectable men in the late Victorian era could grow ZZ-Top style beards and wear hats “the shape of the helmet worn in India, only made of straw” and be though of as embarrassingly pedestrian in their tastes.
  • Pub licensing laws meant that on Sundays you could only get a drink from 1pm or 2pm or 6pm to 9pm unless you were a “traveler” – i.e. someone claiming to be from at least a few miles away. I mean, we have laws as silly as this now, but it’s interesting to find out that our instinct for arbitrary, nonsensical rules is not a new thing.
  • Middle-class people still act in fundamentally the same way they did 125 years ago, only with a few signifiers swapped around.
  • If you tell a librarian in Cambridge Central Library that you can’t find The Diary Of A Nobody and he points out you’ve been looking under W for Weedon instead of G for Grossmith you will get the most contemptuous eye-roll you have ever received.

George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody
George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody (Free text at Project Gutenberg)
George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody (Free audio at Librivox)

Thomas Hardy – Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented

Tess

Thirty-five years after witnessing the last public hanging of a woman in Dorset, Thomas Hardy set out to show how an innocent soul can be so let down by the cruelties and hypocrisies of our society as to end up on the gallows. Tess herself may well be more a representation of an ideal than a real person, and Hardy may get a little too caught up in the experience of his natural world to judge what is real and what is metaphor, but overall I still find it to be a very powerful work.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Full text at Project Gutenberg)
Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Free audiobook at Librivox)
Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Excellent panel discussion on Radio 4’s In Our Time)

Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray

I first read The Picture of Dorian Gray aged 18 and found it to be life-changing. Not for the witticisms which Wilde is so famous for, but for the philosophy of art and morality which it expressed. When I got to university I enlarged the preface and put it up on the wall of my room in halls. Pretentious twat? Yeah, quite possibly. But this all still rings true to me.

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Picture of Dorian Gray (full text at Project Gutenberg)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (audio at Librivox)

 

William Morris – News from Nowhere

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Better known these days for his artistic contributions to the Arts & Crafts movement, William Morris was also a prolific author and prominent socialist thinker. News From Nowhere is a glimpse at a utopian future – or rather it is a novel-length thesis on how things should be, presented in novel format, with the convenient exposition and lengthy explanations that naturally go with this micro-genre. Surprisingly, though, it’s pretty readable, and Morris’s utopian ideas are very well-developed and feasible – so a success overall, not at all as a prediction, but as a vision for people to aim for.

I expect Morris would have been horrified by the first half of the 20th century. But wouldn’t everybody?

News From Nowhere
News From Nowhere (full text at Project Gutenberg)
News From Nowhere (audio at Librivox)

Arthur Machen – The Great God Pan

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“”The Great God Pan” is, I have no hesitation in saying, a perfectly abominable story”… …Why should he be allowed, for the sake of a few miserable pounds, to cast into our midst these monstrous creations of his diseased brain?” – Harry Quilter

“No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds… …the sensitive reader reaches the end with an appreciative shudder.” – H. P. Lovecraft

“It’s a riff on Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan,” which is one of the best horror stories ever written. Maybe the best in the English language. Mine isn’t anywhere near that good, but I loved the chance to put neurotic behavior—obsessive/compulsive disorder—together with the idea of a monster-filled macroverse. That was a good combination. As for Machen vs. Lovecraft: sure, Lovecraft was ultimately better, because he did more with those concepts, but “The Great God Pan” is more reader-friendly. And Machen was there first. He wrote “Pan” in 1895, when HPL was five years old.” – Stephen King

“Suddenly, as they watched, they heard a long-drawn sigh, and suddenly did the colour that had vanished return to the girl’s cheeks, and suddenly her eyes opened. Clarke quailed before them. They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor.” – from Part 1

The Great God Pan; The Terror; and The Angels of Mons
The Great God Pan (full text at Project Gutenberg)
The Great God Pan (audio at Librivox)