BOOK REVIEW | The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre (Oxford World’s Classics)

The vampire as we know it today — often suave, aristocratic, and deadly deceptive — was first conjured during that famous “Haunted Summer” of 1816, when Lord Byron proposed to his guests Mary Godwin (soon to be Mary Shelley), Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, that they each come up with their own supernatural chiller after having just read some German ghost stories. Famously, Frankenstein was born from this contest, but few know that Dracula was as well, or at least its precursor. Polidori and Shelley quickly abandoned their attempts, and Lord Byron began a treatment of prose that he too lost interest with. Byron’s story, about a man who dies while traveling with his friend yet is seen by that same friend upon his return home, was taken up by Polidori and fleshed out into the short story “The Vampyre”. It appears that the tale was left at the Villa Diodati and found by publishers, who mistook it for Byron’s work when they published it a few years later.

Title page for The Vampyre; A Tale (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1819)

There is a great deal in the yarn that we recognize today. Modeled after Byron himself, the vampire is mysterious and a corrupter of young women. The story can be read as a supernatural thriller as much as a cautionary tale to girls about marrying or consorting with young libertines like Byron.

John William Polidori

The rest of the Oxford World Classics collection in which I read the story consists of macabre tales which were published in British magazines during the 1830s (aside from those in Blackwood magazine, which are collected separately). Surprisingly, while some tales are dated and even seemingly pointless (like a man trying to get cats off of a corpse), others are still entertaining, like Sheridan Le Fanu’s story about an attempted murder which would later be expanded into his novel, Uncle Silas, or one inspired by the recent murder spree of Burke and Hare. Others are still disturbing, such as a true story about the massacre of a Protestant family in Ireland, where a baby is bayoneted and thrown into a burning house.

As someone who is genuinely interested in early Gothic and who views these stories as historical artifacts in addition to entertainment, I really enjoyed reading this collection. It certainly won’t be for everyone, especially if you have no patience for loquacious writing and single paragraphs that stretch for pages. As for me, it has kept me thirsty for more nineteenth-century Gothic.

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BOOK REVIEW | A History of Horror

Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror offers a substantial list of horror films from the silent beginnings to the first decade of the twenty-first century. He takes a studio approach, highlighting the directors, producers, and a few of the actors which thrived under certain eras. Only on rare occasions does he touch upon the cultural aspects under which these films were made, and a great deal of the text is taken up by various plot synopses. For someone new to the genre looking for a curated list of horror films to seek out, this book will suffice.

However, for a reader who’s been baptized in the blood and gore of the genre, curious inaccuracies will have one scratching their head. Some errors can be brushed off as innocently typographic, such as placing the release of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn as 1986 and not 1996, or referring to Chucky as Charles Ray Lee instead of Charles Lee Ray. Others are more difficult to ignore, such as claiming that Henry Frankenstein perishes with the Monster and the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), when the Monster actually tells Henry and Elizabeth, “Yes! Go! You live!” and then proceeds to kill himself, the Bride, and Dr. Pretorius while his creator makes his escape. Dixon’s obvious distaste for slashers and, in particular, the Friday the 13th franchise, likely accounts for why he inaccurately describes the first installment: “Jason, played in the first film by Ari Lehman, is a mute, imbecilic, homicidal maniac in a hockey mask who runs amok at Camp Crystal Lake, where an assembly line of teens who smoke pot, have sex, and drink are hacked to death for their ‘transgressions’.” This description may serve to characterize some of the later installments, but it calls into question how much Dixon remembers the first film, or the second for that matter.

While Dixon’s long catalogs of films are largely comprehensive, he neglects the atomic age creature features, such as 1954’s Them! and many other influential sci-fi horror films of the 1950s. Where he proves most useful is in his inventory of foreign horror films for the first decade of the 21st century, which he rightly designates as being superior to the Hollywood horror offerings of the time (though he leaves out the most famous French Extremity film, 2008’s Martyrs). Dixon will, however, find few who are sympathetic to his favorable analysis of Twilight as a positive influence on the genre, and rightly so.

For someone new to the horror genre, Dixon’s history is a useful guide to finding which films one should explore. For a veteran fan, though, there’s not enough to recommend it.

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BOOK LOG | June 2020

What follows is a list of what I read/listened to in the month of June 2020, accompanied by a short publisher’s description and my brief thoughts/reactions.

NONFICTION

The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

“One of the most influential works of this century, The Myth of Sisyphus–featured here in a stand-alone edition–is a crucial exposition of existentialist thought. Influenced by works such as Don Juan and the novels of Kafka, these essays begin with a meditation on suicide–the question of living or not living in a universe devoid of order or meaning. With lyric eloquence, Albert Camus brilliantly posits a way out of despair, reaffirming the value of personal existence, and the possibility of life lived with dignity and authenticity.”

A fascinating rumination on absurdity and on living a life without meaning, or more properly, finding your own meaning in life. Camus encourages us to accept and to find power in a meaningless universe. I read this book right before reading Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man and was surprised to see both books, published around the same time, tackled so many of the same themes.

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Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson

“The Battle of Antietam, fought on September 17, 1862, was the bloodiest single day in American history, with more than 6,000 soldiers killed four times the number lost on D Day, and twice the number killed in the September 11th terrorist attacks. In Crossroads of Freedom, America’s most eminent Civil War historian, James M. McPherson, paints a masterful account of this pivotal battle, the events that led up to it, and its aftermath.”

I had read Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, McPherson’s collection of essays, and really enjoyed it. I looked forward to checking out this slim volume and was not disappointed. McPherson masterfully balances the dramas of war, political maneuvering, social change, and global pressures in this account. The reader comes away not only with a sobering understanding of the battlefield carnage, but also with an appreciation for just how much was at stake and how easily the currents of history might have shifted. This is an excellent primer. For a more detailed military history, readers should check out Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears.

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FICTION

The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson

“While on holiday, Scott Carey is exposed to a cloud of radioactive spray shortly after he accidentally ingests insecticide. The radioactivity acts as a catalyst for the bug spray, causing his body to shrink at a rate of approximately 1/7 of an inch per day. A few weeks later, Carey can no longer deny the truth: not only is he losing weight, he is also shorter than he was and deduces, to his dismay, that his body will continue to shrink.”

Matheson crafts a thoughtful, fast-paced sci-fi horror novel. The horror of the novel comes from the fears of emasculation, which is a common theme we see in the 1950s due to the rise of suburbia. Until the end, Scott Carey can’t get out of the mindset of the 1950s male, with expectations that he should be taller than his wife, the primary breadwinner, the master of the house, and respected by his child. He should be ruler of his domain. The book, therefore, is a record of the slow death of the male ego. The situations in which Carey finds himself in the book are dark, especially for the 1950s, including nearly being molested by a drunk in a car who mistakes him for a prepubescent boy. His shrinking stature also makes him susceptible to being bullied by neighborhood teens. More than anything we see his sexual frustrations, such as when he’s sitting next to his wife and desiring her, but he’s the size of a twelve-year-old and is afraid she’ll reject him or be disgusted if he tries anything. As he gets smaller he resorts to spying on a teenage babysitter and then later laying with a doll in a dollhouse desperate for some form of human affection.

It’s not until he drops the rigid ideals of conformity that he stops thinking of himself as a freak or a child or effeminate and comes to accept himself for what he is that he finds release.

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For a discussion of the 1957 film version, The Incredible Shrinking Man, listen to Episode 89 of The Horrorcast.

The Witches by Roald Dahl

“This is not a fairy-tale. This is about real witches. Real witches don’t ride around on broomsticks. They don’t even wear black cloaks and hats. They are vile, cunning, detestable creatures who disguise themselves as nice, ordinary ladies. So how can you tell when you’re face to face with one? Well, if you don’t know yet you’d better find out quickly-because there’s nothing a witch loathes quite as much as children and she’ll wield all kinds of terrifying powers to get rid of them.”

This was without a doubt my favorite book when I was a kid. I remember the summer after second grade sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard devouring each page. The curse of the little girl trapped in the painting, growing older each day, haunted me for years. This time I read it with my seven-year-old son and took to it just as I had. It’s certainly different reading it as an adult. One sees the gendered assumptions more clearly, for instance. This time I was struck by the Grand High Witch’s germanic accent and her diatribe against children, and I wondered if Dahl was channeling Hitler’s speeches as he wrote it. But considering Dahl’s documented antisemitism, there’s room for doubt.

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AUDIOBOOK

The Life and Times of Prince Albert by Patrick Allitt

“In 10 lectures, award-winning historian Patrick N. Allitt transports listeners to England in the 1840s and 1850s. During those two decades, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, became one of the most influential people in the country and remains a figure of fascination even today. In fact, the British royal family as we know it wouldn’t exist without the private and public actions of this detached, impartial, and upright political figure.”

Royal life does not usually peak my curiosity, but Allitt does a fine job of explaining the era in a balanced and objective manner. I was surprised to find how many modern customs and attitudes stem from Albert, and it was very interesting hearing the impact he had on Britain and the world.

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ALBUM REVIEW | CARACH ANGREN – Franckensteina Strataemontanus

The Dutch act Carach Angren, often categorized as symphonic black metal, prefers to describe itself as horror metal. The latter description more fittingly describes their latest release, Franckensteina Strataemontanus. The concept album tackles Mary Shelley’s classic story in refreshing ways, mixing black metal sensibilities with emotional strings and choruses, as well as with punching moments of industrial flair. Vocalist Dennis “Seregor” Droomers varies his approach between death metal growls, black metal screeches, and smatterings of clean vocals. His pronunciations are nevertheless clear and articulate and worthy of the strong lyrical content, and they help to create a cinematic sense of story. Keyboardist Clemens “Ardek” Wijers effectively orchestrates a marriage of the harsh and the beautiful, appropriate for an album that tackles the Gothic Romanticism of Shelley’s original tale. (Unfortunately, the drummer Ivo “Namtar” Wijers left the group before the release of the album.)

Carach Angran. Photo by HEILEMANIA

Sonically dense, the album operates as a horror opera that drags the listener down different facets of the Frankenstein mythos as it has been told over the centuries: the desire to conquer death and to vanquish grief, the corrupting influence of power, the failure of the creator to take responsibility for his creation, and the questions regarding what a monster is and what makes them monstrous.

From the womb to the tomb and back again

Once a son of light now a creature in the night

Grunting, moaning, groaning and gnawing off her face

Eaten alive in her dear son’s embrace

From “Scourged Ghoul Undead”

They also incorporate historical elements from the life of Johann Conrad Dippel (1673-1734), a German physician, alchemist and occultist. Believed by some to be an inspiration for Shelley’s story, Dippel was born at Castle Frankenstein and the album’s title comes from his name’s addendum. Dippel experimented widely and his reputation for grim experiments on human cadavers spread over the time, though perhaps unjustifiably. He did manage to invent “Dippel’s oil,” an ichor made by distilling animal bones that was claimed to be the ever-elusive “elixir of life.” Used for a while as an insect repellent, its use eventually fell out of favor. However, in the Second World War it was employed during the desert campaign to make wells impotable — because it was not lethal, it was thought to be an acceptable form of chemical warfare. References to Dippel’s oil and to the desert campaign are found within the tracks.

Johann Conrad Dippel

The album is not a straight narrative, though the last track does seem to serve as a prologue to the first, hence creating a cyclical listening experience. The album is more like a series of vignettes related to the common theme of Frankenstein, to macabre attempts to prolong life (such as in the song “Der Vampir Von Nürnberg” about the necrophiliac and murderer, Kuno Hofmann), and to ideas of monstrosity. Nevertheless, nods to both Shelley’s novel and to some cinematic versions of the Frankenstein story are present. An example of the latter can be heard in the title track, in which Seregor declaratively sings, “Oh, in the name of God, now I know how it feels to be God!” These are in fact the infamous lines uttered by Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) in James Whale’s 1931 classic that were once censored for being considered too blasphemous.

The perfume of death is my sweetest cologne.

From “Franckensteina Strataemontanus”

Carach Angren succeeds in crafting a horror experience that is multilayered both musically and thematically. Franckensteina Strataemontanus serves as a grim love letter to Mary Shelley’s creation that refuses to walk the well-worn path of so many adaptations. Horror metal, indeed.

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If you would like to deeper into the Frankenstein story and its author, see my article, A More Horrid Contrast: Mary Shelley and Her Monster, on The Revenant Review.

MOVIE REVIEW | The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) — The Revenant Review

This review is part of the A Play of Light and Shadow: Horror in Silent Cinema Series Movie Review — The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) On April 15, 2019, I watched the television news with dismay and grief. The medieval cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris was engulfed in flames, a city’s history and architectural soul escaping […]

Movie Review – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) — The Revenant Review

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