Tuesday, October 16, 2018
Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was only eighteen. At once a Gothic thriller, a passionate romance, and a cautionary tale about the dangers of science, Frankenstein tells the story of committed science student Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed with discovering the cause of generation and life and bestowing animation upon lifeless matter, Frankenstein assembles a human being from stolen body parts but; upon bringing it to life, he recoils in horror at the creature's hideousness. Tormented by isolation and loneliness, the once-innocent creature turns to evil and unleashes a campaign of murderous revenge against his creator, Frankenstein.
The Classics Club has challenged us all to tackle a classic book of our choice that scares us for this Halloween month of October. Here is their dare. It can be horror, mystery or Gothic, as long as it suits the theme. I chose Mary Shelley's Frankenstein for a couple of reasons. Firstly, this year marks the bicentenary of its original year of publication, 1818. Secondly, it's so impressive that the author of such a masterpiece was a 19-year-old girl. She lived a very sad life too, but left her stamp of genius on the world and no doubt influenced the history of the horror and sci-fi genre for years to come. Reading her book is as close as we can come to saying, 'You go, girl.'
The background alone is interesting. This teenage author was having a getaway at the Lakes District with her fiance, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their good friend Lord Byron. To pass time, Byron suggested the three of them should have a horror story writing contest, and this novel was Mary's contribution. Surely she must have been the winner, because I couldn't even find whatever the two fellows came up with. (If you know, please tell us.)
Victor really admires beauty, so he robs graves for the nicest parts he can find. My favourite character in this story is basically a composite of human flesh chunks which Victor dismembers, then gets his needle and sews together. But when he uses his secret method to breathe life into it, the result is a major stuff-up. Instead of a noble super-being, the person he's created looks repulsive and hideous. If we can imagine a revived piecemeal corpse that has recently been rotting underground, it's probably close. Aha, so maybe our boy has just proven why humans shouldn't play God. 'It was such a thing as even Dante couldn't have conceived.' Victor runs out and hopes the thing will just go away. But although he's relieved in the short term, his creation returns to haunt him down the track, of course.
We get the monster's personal story of what happens when he first wanders out to explore the world. He's in the weird position of being fully grown from the start, with no babyhood memories to draw from. But unlike the original Adam, Frankenstein's monster finds himself feared and rejected wherever he goes. Anyone who's ever felt lonely to their very bone and longed to be part of the in-crowd should spare a thought for this poor fellow. 'My heart yearned to be loved by these amiable creatures. To see their sweet looks turned toward me with affection was the utmost limit of my ambition.'
His plea to Victor seems reasonable at first to both of them. He basically says, 'You created me, which means you have a certain responsibility for my welfare. So create a female companion to ease my loneliness, and I promise I'll never bother you again. Or suffer the consequences.' Anyone who's ever procrastinated on a dreaded project should spare a thought for poor Victor too. He said, 'Every thought devoted to it was an extreme anguish, and every word that I spoke in allusion to it caused my lips to quiver and my heart to palpitate.' (Actually, that reminds me of past days when I used to defer work on exam revision, essays or writing synopses.)
Victor's conscience starts to bother him as he considers that he might end up as the curse of mankind, if he carries his promise through, and a spawn of repulsive and malevolent monster babies are unleashed. 'A race of devils would be propogated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. I shuddered to think that future ages might curse me as their pest, whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the existence of the whole human race.' Whoops, it'd be the opposite of the adulation he'd hoped for, so there's still a bit of self-interest there, but at least he's trying to be honourable.
There's something I overlooked, and Mary Shelley herself didn't even seem to consider. I thank my husband for mentioning this, while I was discussing the book with him. Wouldn't any kids of the monster and his missus end up being quite normal? After all, Victor made the monster by collecting deceased body parts and infusing them with life. So since the reproductive organs and their DNA presumably weren't hideous to start with, the offspring themselves could end up quite socially acceptable. They might either think, 'Mum and Dad sure are ugly,' or, 'If Mum and Dad are normal, then everyone else is really gorgeous.' How cool if the plot had gone that way, but Victor abandoned the female project part way through. That spelled the end of his peace of mind from then on.
One of the saddest themes is how quick human nature is to assign bad motives to someone just because he's ugly. Even moments when the monster is intent on preserving life, he's perceived as a threat and his intentions are misinterpreted. All because of first impressions. His tragic life shows how loneliness and bad treatment might drive a person to turn resentful and vengeful in return. The monster dares just one person to push beyond human shallowness, but nobody steps up. 'If any being felt benevolence towards me, I should return them an hundred fold. For that one creature's sake, I would make peace with the whole kind.' It's a powerful line, because even though we don't get to meet Victor's monster in person, we can take his challenge on board and pass the test with other people or creatures society might shun in general.
Even though it's a fairly somber story, there's amazing beauty in Mary Shelley's writing, and many small glimpses of how easy it is to live a good and satisfying life. It all comes down to how we respond to the beauty around us in creation, and appreciate what we're part of. Victor's best buddy Henry Clerval is master of living in the moment. And Victor himself says, 'I was formed for peaceful happiness. If I was ever overcome by ennui, the sight of what is beautiful in nature, or the study of what is excellent and sublime in the productions of man could always interest my heart and communicate elasticity to my spirits.' So there's a direct prescription for those of us who haven't created a monster who's hell bent on destroying our life.
There are morals aplenty, and a range of characters to pick off from the whole Frankenstein family. The monster discovers that revenge isn't all its cracked up to be. 'While I destroyed his hopes, I didn't satisfy my own desires.' As for Victor himself, he was possibly the scarier of the two in several ways! What could be more terrifying than a self-absorbed, immature young student with tickets on himself who suddenly discovers that he can bring inanimate flesh to life? Maybe we could sum up what this poor kid learns in just one sentence. 'Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.'
Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Here's a good list for October, which we all know is Halloween month. Each of these stories contains an incident that takes place in a graveyard. They range from sweet to the macabre, and in honour of the holiday season, I thought I'd count down to award the creepiest of all. I hope you enjoy this virtual trip through these graveyards and cemeteries.
We'll warm up with some nice, sentimental examples. These aren't at all in the running for creepiest, but are designed to make us sigh, 'Aww.'
Anne of the Island
Our heroine fulfills a bittersweet dream when she visits Bolingbroke Cemetery, where her parents lie. Walter and Bertha Shirley died while Anne was still an infant, and were buried together in a single grave. Although they were practically destitute, the local school board erected a tombstone to honor him for his faithful service. Now twenty years later, their orphan daughter pays a visit to lie flowers on their grave, in a touching moment of the story.
Harry Potter (Saint Jerome's Graveyard, Godric Hollow)
This is the burial place of several illustrious witches and wizards. Harry and Hermione pay a visit one snowy Christmas Eve to seek the grave of his parents, and discover that the Dumbledore family and the Peverell brothers of Deathly Hallows fame also lie buried there. Harry weeps with emotion, while Hermione considerately conjures a bouquet to place on James and Lily's grave. And on another occasion, two more teenagers pass by, in a visit from the future. (Time gets very twisted here.) Scorpius Malfoy points it out to his best friend Albus Potter and tells him that in their own time, a memorial statue of baby Harry and his parents has been erected.
The Protestant Cemetery outside the gates of Louvain is the scene of a happy reunion in this romance by Charlotte Bronte. William Crimsworth is a young English professor whose beloved girlfriend Frances has been banished by the jealous headmistress. He has no idea how to find her. William is taking a leisurely stroll among the tombstones one fine day when he spots Frances paying a visit to the fresh grave of her aunt. It's such a fantastic coincidence, since he'd resigned himself to never seeing her again.
Now the chilling factor starts to heat up a bit. (I know that sentence sounds contradictory.) Are you still holding on? Many of these involve wide-eyed little orphans or earnest young men.
The Graveyard Book
The cemetery is home sweet home for our young hero orphan. A baby boy toddles away from the scene of his family's gruesome murder. Now he's being brought up in the graveyard down the hill by Mr and Mrs Owens, a kindly couple of ghosts who live there. This story takes the typical changeling plot to a whole new level. Young Bod (short for Nobody) has many crazy adventures in both the natural and supernatural realms. He's just not supposed to ever leave the safety of his graveyard home.
It's in the local graveyard where the poor little orphan Pip first meets the desperate fugitive Magwitch, who snatches hold of him right beside his parents' tombstone and demands food and a file. Or else his heart and liver will be eaten alive by a fierce young man. Remember Magwitch's obvious relief when he asks Pip where his parents are, and Pip points down at the grave? I don't blame Pip for being quick to comply with the convict's demand, but he has no idea of the ripple effect he sets into motion, which impacts his life long after he's grown up. (My review is here.)
The Woman in White
Walter Hartwright is anxious to talk to a deranged young woman who's been sending dire warnings to the girl he loves. He has good reason to believe that Anne Catherick, the woman in white, likes to spend her nights in the cemetery, near a specific grave. He sets up camp to wait for her, and sure enough, Anne shows up loaded with scrubbing gear. Her personal mission is to make sure her benefactress Mrs Fairlie's grave is always the sparkliest and cleanest in the graveyard. It's her devoted way of paying her respects.
That incident already sets the atmosphere, but way later on, a grieving Walter visits the grave of his beloved Laura, to find Laura herself creeping up behind him, alive and well. I'll bet he had goosebumps on his goosebumps! Can't you just imagine him looking down at the grave, then up to her face, then down to the tombstone again? (My review is here.)
Graveyards certainly aren't always the quiet places they seem. While a pair of gravediggers are preparing poor drowned Ophelia's grave, they unearth the skull of Yorick, an old jester from Hamlet's childhood. It inspires the young hero to start one of his long, philosophical rants about the nature of mortality, and we know it doesn't take much to set him off. While he's in full flow, Ophelia's brother Laertes arrives with her funeral procession. He sees red at the sight of Hamlet, who he blames for her suicide, and the two young men start a brawl right beside the newly dug grave.
In a dramatic moment, poor Victor Frankenstein, the hapless young creator, visits the cemetery where all his loved ones lie. Little brother William, playfellow Justine, best friend Henry, beloved Dad and sweetheart Elizabeth. The one thing they share in common is that they've all been murdered by the monster Victor created with his own hands. He kneels among the tombs and vows to bring that fiend down, if it's the last thing he ever does. A diabolical burst of laughter from somewhere nearby greets his outburst, as if to say, 'OK, game on!' (Review is here.)
The Bishop's Girl
This story's melancholy premise revolves around a graveyard in France. Bishop Anthony Shackleton died a hero's death there in 1917, and decades later his admirers are exhuming the grave to take his remains home to England. To their shock, another crudely wrapped skeleton, which proves to be a young woman, has been buried with him. All they can figure out is that she shares his DNA. Her identity becomes the business of Professor Waller and his archivist Jess Morris. (My review is here.)
Now I'll present my hardcore examples for most spine-chilling, hair-raising or outright weird. These are contenders for the winner.
Could the Gimmerton graveyard, out on the icy, bleak Yorkshire moor be the creepiest of all? Halfway through the story, Heathcliff, who's sick with love for Catherine, bribes the sexton to force open her coffin so he can stare at her face. He says it's still recognisable after twenty odd years. It seems that in their climate, she's frozen solid for a great part of every year. Heathcliff gives orders that he must be buried beside Catherine with the sides of their two coffins removed so they can disintegrate into dust together. Or else he'll prove that the human soul is not annihilated at death. Perhaps he proves it anyway, even though they carry out his wishes. Several traumatised villagers report sightings of Heathcliff and Catherine together above ground, doing whatever they used to when they were wild kids who imagined heaven wasn't good enough for them. It would surely be enough to terrify me, since they were both scary enough alive! (My review is here.)
For over a century, I'd say Emily Bronte held the title of the author who gave us the creepiest graveyard incident. But then in the early 21st century, J.K. Rowling popped up to dispute that.
Harry Potter (Little Hangleton Graveyard)
When Harry and Cedric both seize the tournament cup to tie for first place, it turns out to be a portkey drawing them to the Little Hangleton graveyard, where Voldemort gleefully awaits. After disposing of the 'spare' (poor Cedric) he orders Harry to be tied up and arranges a horrific potion which includes blood from his enemy Harry, a bone from his own father who's buried in a nearby grave, and the hand of his willing follower Peter Pettigrew. It's enough for the unthinkable to happen. A reasonably able body for Voldemort is produced. Harry's desperate escape back to Hogwarts involves a mad chase around the tombstones and a staggering collision of spells.
Wuthering Heights or The Goblet of Fire? The struggle was real. And because I couldn't choose between them, I decided to throw in a dark horse. My award for most unexpectedly disturbing graveyard incident comes from a reasonably wholesome coming-of-age classic, and wins for its sheer left-fieldedness and originality.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Somewhere in the block of tenement flats lives a person whose favourite game really freaks young Francie Nolan out. It's 'the boy who plays graveyard.' He puts live caterpillars into matchboxes, digs tiny graves and buries them. Next he makes little headstones by writing on pebbles. Then he holds mock funerals in which he beats his breast and sobs. Needless to say, this seriously disturbs her silent reading time. When he's taken to visit his aunt one day, Francie considers his absence as good as a holiday. I thought I'd give that young lad top honour in this blog post, since nobody else probably ever did! I wonder whatever became of him, although I shudder to think.
Did any of your favourites make it on my list? There must be plenty of gaps, especially since I overlook the whole horror genre, which isn't a favourite of mine so I don't know many. Please feel free to add more in the comments, or take my list as a morbid (or bittersweet) springboard for your own October reading.
And do have a look at last year's Halloween list, Famous Headless People, which includes some truly memorable characters who prove they don't even need heads. You might also enjoy my wisdom from the graveyard school, who were a truly awesome group of men who pieced together a great philosophy just from hanging out in cemeteries writing poetry.
Wednesday, October 3, 2018
The beloved American classic about a young girl's coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness -- in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.
This book amazed me, at this stage of my life. There is so much to love and relate to, it's like 'me between pages', although set in a way different place and time. I kicked myself wondering how a lifelong bookworm like me could have overlooked this gem when I was the same age as the main character Francie. For all those years, when people have asked about my favourite books, I could've mentioned this one, but just didn't know! And now I want to make up for lost time.
Basically, it's all about the struggle young Francie Nolan and her family face to hold things together when times are really tough. But she eventually manages to enter college without High School, although everything seems stacked against her. Francie (or Frances) lives with her parents Katie and Johnny, and her brother Neeley (Cornelius), a year younger than she is. They are so vivid and vibrant, you can't help distributing a quarter of your heart to all four. The story starts when the kids are 11 and 10 years old, zooms back to the past when their parents first met, takes us through their birth and babyhood, then catches up again and brings them to the brink of adulthood at 17 and 16.
It's a coming of age story in the best sense of the phrase. Not a syrupy sweet kids' story but a life commentary full of cynical, sometimes seamy observations. Betty Smith directs well-aimed digs at bureaucratic people in high places, such as doctors and teachers, who live in a privileged world of their own with no empathy or compassion for the people they supposedly serve. And good for her! Revealing hidden attitudes that stink should be part of a novelist's job when necessary. (Although a certain English teacher of Francie's strongly disagreed.)
Now I'll try to describe how the family touched my heart. The best sorts of stories are those in which the parents take shape as unique individuals with their own depth, rather than just being disciplinary shades in the background.
Oh, Johnny, Johnny, Johnny! The young dad of the family is charming and loving, with a smooth singing voice, natty dress style and knack of making everyone happy. He's their own 'sweet singer of sweet songs.' But we're told his hankering after immortality makes him a useless dreamer, and his freelance singing waiter job is a totally unreliable source of a steady income. His big enemy, alcohol, gets the better of him. Grab your box of tissues before you start.
When I think of Katie I want to push back my chair and give her a standing ovation. She's a hero-mother, with a fierce desire to do anything to not only preserve but prosper her family. She's never afraid to roll up her sleeves and work really hard, and for most the book, puts in long hours as a cleaning lady and janitor. Katie brings dignity and finesse to her job, proving that we're not defined by our occupation, but in fact define it. She has no time for self-pity, which distracts her from what needs to be done and doubles the misery. I love how she chooses to ignore naysayers and focuses on what she knows to be the truth in her heart. 'When she spoke, it was truly, with the right, plain words. And her thoughts walked in a clear, uncompromising line.'
Katie's mother, Grandma Mary Rommely, is deeply pious but un-judgmental of others. Her advice to her daughter about raising children is the best. A steady diet of legends and fairy tales is as vital to their health as physical food. Because a person living in the hard, cold world must have a robust imagination to retreat into, or the world will prove to be too much for them. 'Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for.' It makes sense to Katie, who gets hold of a Bible and volume of Shakespeare, and starts reading a page of each to her daughter and son every night, while they're still babies in their cot.
Francie takes it all on board to carry her through life. She figures out early on that books will always be there for her, filling lonely moments, and becoming the perfect substitute for close friends. One of her first jobs is at a 'clipping bureau', which turns out to be a fascinating relic of bygone days. Basically, these girls were engaged as Google search engines by wealthy clients. They sat perusing newspapers all day to cut out articles for their customers' files, relating to whatever they were looking for. Hey, I can imagine myself doing that, but the downside seemed to be eye-strain and brain-strain, since they were unable to work on auto-pilot but had to concentrate intently around the clock. For Francie, it's one of many stepping stones to where she wants to go.
But family dynamics gets tense at times, as favouritism keeps rearing its head. Katie Nolan knows from the start that she'll prefer her cute and robust son over her more puny and dowdy daughter. She has dreams to make Neeley into a sort of new-and-improved Johnny (which amazingly seems to work). Rather than trying to change her own heart, Katie thinks, 'I'm going to love this boy more than the girl, but I mustn't ever let her know. It is wrong to love one child more than the other, but this is something I can't help.' So with that attitude, how successful do you think she is at concealing it?
It got me hopping mad at first, but I came to see it's all part and parcel of the traits I admire about Katie. She's a lady in touch with her own emotions who can't be bothered trying to fool herself with denial. Plus she's an excellent mother to both. But Francie is sensitive enough to grasp the way things are, long before it bursts out into the open in a way that upsets both children. It's family tension at its best, but I'll say no more. Hats off to the children though, for not buying into competitiveness, jealousy and comparison.
The ending comes at an interesting point for Katie and her kids, and I keep wondering what would have happened next. Katie doesn't seem like the sort of person who could function as a lady of leisure. She'd surely crack at the seams. Francie has the romantic dilemma of not loving the guy who's interested in her as much as one who jilted her. Will the emotions gradually make her crack? And Neeley doesn't strike me as the academic type, so will he keep letting the ladies of the family decide his destiny? If he keeps going along with his mother's ambitions for him, will he crack too? Oh Betty Smith, you rounded it off at a nice place, but I still want more! But I guess that's what our imaginations are for.