“Life is actually a series of encounters
in which one event may change those
that follow in a wholly unpredictable,
even devastating way.”
from Jurassic Park
Today’s selection of classic books is somewhat unusual but it will illuminate how even different and seemingly unconnected books can influence a generation of readers in the same, influential way. As it is unusual, for me, to write about Gothic horror, I would like to warn readers of a nervous disposition to close this post now, and come back next week when the beauty, gentleness, and kindness in books will be restored.
Just to get you in the right mood, here is a clip from Nosferatu (1922) (watch it from behind your sofa):
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
1859 – 1930
Arthur Conan Doyle was born in 1859 in Edinburgh and educated at Stonyhurst College and Edinburgh University. He qualified as a doctor and had a practice in Southsea, Portsmouth.
The success of his creation, the detective, Sherlock Holmes, enabled Conan Doyle to abandon his career as a doctor to live by his pen; his ambition to make his literary reputation by writing historical novels rather than tales of detection was, however, rejected by readers as well as publishers, who demanded to read more of the stories about the eccentric detective whose genius has held readers in thrall for more than a century now.
It would be hard to name another modern literary character who has achieved such international celebrity. Sherlock Holmes’ several intriguing qualities are immediately apparent: the excitable intellect, the passion for scientific inquiry, the preternatural skill at quickly interpreting, in revelatory detail, evidence that is in plain sight but invisible to everyone else.
A little taste of one of Sherlock Holmes’s favourite composers, Mendelsshon:
Conan Doyle’s conception of a scientific, rationally deductive detective was based in part upon Dr Joseph Bell, a professor with whom the author had studied during his medical education at the University of Edinburgh. “He was a very skilful surgeon,” Conan Doyal wrote in his autobiography, “but his strong point was a diagnosis, not only of disease but of occupation and character.”
Dr Joseph Bell
Combining Bell’s diagnostic gifts with elements drawn from the early detective tales of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle imagined an investigator who would solve cases “on his own merits and not through the folly of the criminal.”
Edgar Allan Poe
This was one of the reasons that perhaps for the first time in the genre, the detective himself became the focus of the reader’s fascination that was quick to take hold.
The editor of The Strand Magazine asked Dr Conan Doyle to write a few detective stories, and if the author had his way that might have been the end of Sherlock Holmes. When The Strand asked for more Holmes stories, Conan Doyle named an exorbitant price as a deterrent; to his surprise, they readily agreed to his terms. After this second set of cases had run, The Strand requested twelve more, and again the author named a price he was sure would be prohibitive. Once more the magazine happily agreed. Sherlock Holmes proved too popular to be put to rest.
Indeed, eager to be free of his creation, Conan Doyle completed this additional Strand commission with “The Final Problem,” a story in which he seemed to kill Holmes off in an encounter with his arch-enemy. The outrage among readers was such that the author eventually reopened the Holmes casebook, producing a stream of new stories throughout the rest of his writing career.
THE LOST WORLD
Doyle also wrote historical romances and his scientific novel The Lost World was the first of a series of stories to feature the cantankerous Professor Challenger. No one believes controversial scientist Professor Challenger’s story about prehistoric animals still living on a remote plateau in South America, so he takes an expedition back there to prove it.
Among the team is our narrator, the journalist, Edward Malone. What they find in the furthest stretches of the River Amazon is shocking, terrifying, and life-threatening. Will they all survive their trip back in time?
The tension in Conan Doyle’s fascinating adventure builds slowly, and he describes in detail the flora and fauna the team encounters along the way. His basic idea has inspired many other novels and films over the years, including Michael Crichton’s The Lost World and Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park.
After Doyle’s son died in World War I, he devoted most of the rest of his life to the study of spiritualism and wrote several books on the subject. He died in 1930.
An extract from The Lost World:
“Early next morning we were again afoot and found that the character of the country had changed once again. Behind us was the wall of bamboo, as definite as if marked the course of the river. In front was an open plain, sloping slightly upwards and dotted with clumps of tree-ferns, the whole curving before us until it ended in a long, whale-backed ridge. This we reached about midday, only to find a shallow valley beyond, rising once again into a gentle incline which led to a low, rounded sky-line. It was here, while we crossed the first of these hills, that an incident occurred which may or may not have been important.
Professor Challenger, who with two locals was in the van of the party, stopped suddenly and pointed excitedly to the right. As he did so we saw, at the distance of a mile or so, something which appeared to be a huge grey bird flap slowly up from the ground and skim smoothly off, flying very low and straight, until it was lost among the tree-ferns.
‘Did you see it? cried Challenger, in exultation. “Summerlee, did you see it?’
His colleague was staring at the spot where the creature had disappeared.
‘What do you claim that it was?’ he asked.
‘To the best of my belief, a pterodactyl.’
Summerlee burst into derisive laughter ‘A pter-fiddlestick!’ said he. ‘It was a stork, if ever I saw one.’
“Do you not think that there are things
which you cannot understand,
and yet which are; that some people
see things that others cannot?”
1847 – 1912
Abraham Stoker, known as Bram, was born near Dublin and was sickly and frequently bedridden as a child. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, then became a civil servant, working in Dublin Castle.
Trinity College Dublin
During this period, Stoker had his first stories published, became a freelance theatre critic, and befriended the great actor Sir Henry Irving, who invited him to become his secretary and touring manager, a position he would hold for the next twenty-seven years.
Sir Henry Irving
Although Stoker published some of his works earlier, it wasn’t until 1897 that his masterwork Dracula appeared, a story about a vampire, that caught the public imagination, making Count Dracula internationally famous. His creation seduced generations of readers, their thirst for blood heralding love and death, themes as old as story itself. Forbidden love, untamed passion, otherworldly desire – when it comes to popular fiction, who could ask for anything more?
Subverting convention in many ways, notably by making the vampire in question fallibly human and by presenting his story in his own words, Stoker’s tale also embraces the genre’s Gothic-erotic roots with relish. The result is one of the best vampire novels ever written. The book containing elements of Eastern European vampire legends, in an edition of veiled eroticism and a looming personality – along with a few new qualities, such as his vampire’s lack of reflection in a mirror – created an undead villain for the ages, one who still runs rampant through a century of spin-offs.
Many adaptations of Dracula followed, many imaginatively ghoulish and unforgettable.
This is a story about a horrifying Count who just won’t die. You know the character, of course, from countless cartoons, several movies, and TV shows, but have you ever actually read Bram Stoker’s Victorian horror classic, Dracula?
The outline of the story is familiar – a centuries-old vampire lures an English visitor to his castle in Transylvania, then journeys to London to seek fresh blood from his visitor’s paramour – with first mystified, then terrified, and finally horrified pursuers on his trail. But what you may not know how the formal structure of Stoke’s storytelling, adds to the suspense. The initial chapters in the book are told through the journal of the Englishman who makes the trip to the count’s eerie castle.
While exploring the ruined chapel containing fifty wooden boxes filled with earth, he comes across one where lies the Un-Dead Count, covered in blood.
The rest of the novel portrays the growing fears and awareness of an extended circle of characters through letters, telegrams, newspaper stories, diary entries, and even transcriptions of early photographic recordings. As episodes and revelations are pieced together, the reader’s apprehension mounts with the discovery of each new wound, corpse, and coffin.
Mina Harker, the Englishman’s fiancee
Through diary entries, we hear how the boxes are shipped back to England and the Count manages to turn the Englishman’s fiancee into a vampire. Can she be saved? How can Count Dracula be stopped? Stoker’s classic story is far creepier than any of the countless film versions it has inspired.
An extract from Dracula:
“There lay the Count, but looking as though his youth had been half restored, For the white hair and moustache were changed to dark iron-grey…. The mouth was redder than ever, for on his lips were gouts of fresh blood, which trickled from the corners of the mouth and ran down over the chin and neck. Even the deep, burning eyes seemed set amongst swollen flesh, for the lids and pouches underneath were bloated. It seemed as if the whole awful creature were simply gorged with blood.”
“Like one who, on a lonely road,
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And, having once turned round, walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.”
Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner”
1797 – 1851
Mary Shelley was an English novelist who wrote the Gothic novel, Frankenstein, in 1818, which is considered an early example of science fiction. She was born in London, the daughter of two celebrated radicals, the writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and the well-known novelist and political philosopher, William Godwin.
Mary Shelley’s parents
Her parents married on 29 March 1797, and Mary was born on 30 August. Complications from her birth resulted in her mother’s death on 10 September.
When little Mary was four years old, her father remarried Mary Jane Clairmont. She brought with her two children. The only memories recorded by Mary were bad ones. She had to compete with the other children and her stepmother for the attention of her father. When she was an adolescent and started to look like her late, beautiful mother, Mary Jane sent her for two years to live in Scotland “for her health”.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
On a brief visit home, she met a poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was married at the time. Over the next years, Shelley’s marriage began to disintegrate, and on meeting again with Mary, he eloped with her, although he wasn’t divorced. Various tragic events made them travel to the Continent. touring Switzerland, where they met the legendary Lord Byron.
One day, Lord Byron said, “We will each write a ghost story,” detailed in Mary Shelley’s introduction to her now-famous tale of Dr Victor Frankenstein and his odd and ungainly progeny. Mary sought a theme that “would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beating of the heart.”
Some days later she heard the poets discussing the experiments of Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), who “preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.” That night, she lay in bed possessed by the idea that would animate her tale: “the hideous phantasm” of an assembled figure stirring to life through the machinations of a “student of unhallowed art.”
She terrified herself, but had her story – one that has been frightening readers and audiences ever since.
This is an intricate tale, told in interwoven voices. The first belongs to Robert Walton recounting his expedition to the North Pole in letters to his sister. The second belongs to the desperate, half-mad man, whom Wolton discovers sledding across the ice, Dr Victor Frankenstein, who relates the terrible history of his misbegotten project to create life on a laboratory table.
The third and most haunting voice belongs to the product of those experiments, the monstrous figure Frankenstein pursues across the Arctic, whose narrative of hope and disappointment, longing and violence, culminates in a passionate plea for a companion to share his solitude and redeem him from his murderous discontent.
For he has learned what Dr Frankenstein tragically realises only too late: the spark of life, untended by sympathy and society, is just a breath away from flaring into horrifying savagery.
Shelley’s novel is the work of a thinker, and not just the cheap thrill that countless sequels, spin-offs, and spoofs might lead one to expect. The philosophical, psychological, and ethical complexities in which she has tangled her tale deepen its strangeness and wonder. Strange and wonderful it remains, as suspenseful a monster yarn, and as absorbing a human one, as any reader could desire. The moral of the story is that no matter how clever we think we and our stupendous mechanism are, there is no chance that without a soul that we could ever better the work of the Creator of the world.
An extract from Frankenstein:
“Autumn passed thus. I saw with surprise and grief, the leaves decay and fall, and nature again assume the barren and bleak appearance it had worn when I first beheld the woods and the lovely moon. Yet I did not heed the bleakness of the weather; I was better fitted by my conformation for the endurance of cold than heat. But my chief delights were the sight of the flowers, the birds, and all the gay apparel of summer; when those deserted me, I turned with more attention towards the cottages. Their happiness was not decreased by the absence of summer. They loved and sympathised with one another; their joys, depending on each other, were not interrupted by the casualties that took place all around them. The more I saw of them, the greater became my desire to claim their protection and kindness; my heart yearned to be known and loved by these amiable creatures; to see their sweet looks directed towards me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition. I dared not think that they would turn them from me with disdain and horror. The poor that stopped at their door were never driven away. I asked, it is true, for greater treasures than a little food or rest; I required kindness and sympathy; but I did not believe myself utterly unworthy of it.”
PS In case you were wondering, the stirring music is the original theme of the first Frankenstein film released in 1931.