Sunday, 26 May 2013

For the Blood is the Life

There was one great tomb more lordly than all the rest; 
huge it was, and nobly proportioned. On it was but one word:


116 years ago today (May 26th), Bram Stoker unleashed his masterwork upon an unsuspecting Victorian society. Dracula is one of my all-time favourite books; a cliché perhaps, given my love of the nineteenth century and chilling tales, but it’s an unashamed pleasure. Like the critics back in 1897, I think Dracula is note-perfect in its execution, and a wonderful example of the late-Victorian novel.

It’s strange to think, from a modern perspective, that Dracula was itself homage to an earlier style of writing. Stoker took inspiration from writers such as Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto, 1764) and John Polidori (The Vampyre, 1819), to create a masterpiece of Gothic fiction. The pop culture part of my brain says it’s the Victorian equivalent of the movie Tombstone (the one with Kurt Russell), which takes probably all the best western archetypes and squashes them into something better than the sum of its parts. But I digress (again).

What I love about this book (aside from the fact that it’s still pretty creepy, and has one of the best baddies ever, and is everything that Twilight isn’t, thank Christ), is that it truly is a product of its age. The narrative hearkens back to an earlier style, but the story couldn’t be set before the late-Victorian period. Telegrams are integral to the plot in a way that the diary entries and letters of early epistolary writing could never be, lending urgency to a second-hand piece of information. The book features up-to-date (for 1897) medical procedures and psychiatric knowledge. It features social commentary from a perspective of ‘progressive’ Victorian morals (Lucy is punished for being so wanton and silly; her father is never around because he’s forever taking late night walks into town… ahem; and Mina is the true object of love for Harker and Dracula, because she’s a modern woman, a thinking woman, and a model of what Stoker saw as the future). It has subtle references to sexuality and secret desires (and the consequences thereof if you take the blood disease readings of the book to their obvious conclusion).

The rather lovely Barnes & Noble
leatherbound classic edition.
But for all of these subtexts, I think Dracula stands the test of time because it’s a genuinely good read. Sure, it shows its age in the language and characterisation, but nowhere near as much as early Victorian fiction like Dickens and Wilkie Collins. This book was written near the close of the Victorian age, and as such features modern language and, more importantly, modern ideas that might surprise today's reader. As the anniversary of its publication draws near, that lovely leatherbound edition is calling to me, like a wolf on the shore of a Whitby beach. The weather might be warming up outside, but the book never fails to transport me to a stormy winter’s night in 1897, when the doomed ship Demeter washes ashore, bringing with it a hellish cargo…

If you’ve never read Dracula, you’re missing out!

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Gender Agenda

Just lately I've decided to embrace social media a little more. Partly, I've known for ages that the only way to really make friends and influence people any more is through this Internet-thingy, and partly, my dear lady wife has bullied me into it. “Stop being so Victorian,” she said. “Embrace 2013,” she said. A stranded time traveller such as myself can barely get to grips with wireless telephones and ovens powered by electricity, so you’d think she’d go easy on me.

Anyway, the real reason for blogging today is that I have decided to begin my second novel. (Yes, I know the first one isn't out yet, and I'm aware I'm being uncharacteristically optimistic; but I'm confident. And the second one is going to be even better than the first. Hash tag Ego, as the kids might say).

I made some firm decisions about the imaginatively titled Book Two a long time ago. The first was that the lead character was going to be [gasp] a woman. The second was that she was going to be an exceptional woman in the Victorian era – so exceptional, in fact, that she would have to be labelled as ‘the Other’ by those of a philosophical bent (Yes, I've read a lot of Angela Carter, and yes, it has inspired me considerably in the writing of Book Two). The third was that she would have to go through some pretty extreme ordeals in order to realise that there’s more to life than just being accepted in a man’s world, even in the 1870s. Now, this is going to be a sci-fi/horror mash-up, so I can pull some unconventional levers to make my point, but that doesn't take away from one simple fact: what I'm doing is a bit unusual, especially for a man.

I'm not saying it hasn't been done before (It has). I'm not even saying that I'm treating the subject with an entirely original bent. It’s probably even been done in the same genre for all I know. But when you look at all the [ugh!] genre fiction out there in the world, it’s amazing how much of it is focused on male-centric stories. Now, as you may be aware, I travelled to this time from 1888, and women there had a rum time of it, I can tell you. But it seems that, in the stories circulating today, we haven’t moved on terribly much. Even women writers often write about male characters if they want to break into niche genres (Harry Potter, anyone? And that horrid Twilight thingy – the one with the anonymous girl living vicariously through the eyes of an ageing sexual predator… I mean, vampire – god, I wish vampires were scary again. Ahem). I might just be writing Jane Eyre with added ultraviolence, rather than high art, but it’s still not going to be terribly ‘mainstream’ in its themes and characters. I'm not exactly a champion of feminism, but I do find that curious.

Possibly the point of the blog, other than just being food for thought and rambling musings, is that I'm already finding it really difficult. Understanding the theory behind female character development doesn't mean I understand how to write a ‘real’ woman. Anyone got any tips? Because, to be honest, I can’t imagine a trickier thing to write than an entire novel from the point of view of a nonconformist female, kicking ass and taking names, and not even bothering to be all masculine in the process.

Coming full circle, I was inspired to write this blog by an article I found doing the rounds on Twitter. It’s about the rather patriarchal viewpoint offered by geek culture tropes in the media. It’s a lot more succinct than my offerings, but I'm a product of my time. It even made me slap my forehead and exclaim ‘Ripley! Of course!’ (I'm calling that a Ripley Moment from now on). I heartily recommend you check it out. Unless you think a woman’s place is in the kitchen, of course, in which case you probably shouldn't.