Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Be My Guest...Melusine Draco!


“You’ll enjoy these,” said my friend. “Couple of them are a bit on the dark side.” Being of a Gothic-bent in my youth I do enjoy ‘dark’ literature – in exactly the same way as I relish dark chocolate, Mahler and moonless nights. Dark doesn’t necessarily mean horror, morbid or sombre – dark chocolate is bitter but gives immense tow-curling enjoyment; Mahler reaches down into the pit of the soul and can be tremendously uplifting. Dark nights enable one to slither down from the belfry and … oh, never mind …
Dark fiction is a very personal thing and if I were to think of my own favourite novels, we’ll find that these have a very dark side indeed. Top of my list, where it has remained for over 40 years is John Fowles’ ‘The Magus’. This is a peculiar book and not just in content. Described as ‘a towering entertainment’ and a ‘virtuoso feat of storytelling’ it was often accused of being incomprehensible; to add to its strangeness, the author even put out a revised version of the novel’s ending a decade later. Most of the story takes place against a backdrop of pagan sensuality on a remote Greek island in the 1950s but the principal character and narrator elicits little sympathy from the reader as he clumsily attempts to unravel the complicated skeins of truth and illusion spun by an adroit puppet-master.       “Why have you no imagination, no humour, no patience? You are like a child who tears a beautiful toy to pieces to see how it is made. You have no imagination ... no poetry,” accuses Lily by way of a rebuke as he tries to smash his way past her reserve.
There is a strange ‘otherworldness’ that requires the suspension of reality, the flight of imagination - or, like Nicholas, the reader flounders in a quagmire of resentment at not being let in on the secret or allowed to enter the domain. Although it was made into a film starring Michael Caine very little of the original plot was utilised to any degree of satisfaction. This is a book that once read, is never forgotten - a genuine modern literary masterpiece.
An older favourite going back to schooldays, Dumas’s ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ is the archetypal revenge story on a magnificent scale. How many remember the wonderful BBC adaptation staring Alan Badel - the only actor to ever bring Edmond Dantes to life. It has been claimed that for ‘pure inventiveness and fecundity in narration, ‘The Count of Mount Cristo’ is the greatest story in the world’. Not a bad review to have under your belt. The story is, of course, too well known to need any introduction but the justification is as chilling today as it was in Dumas’ time: “... but I never seek to protect society who does not protect me ...“ comments the Count upon his arrival in Paris prior to his seeking out and destroying those responsible for his 14 years incarceration. An innocent man condemned to die in prison for a political crime he did not commit, he rises like a spectre from the grave to exact a revenge never tempered with forgiveness for the guilty.

Although never having had the urge to write an historical novel, it would be wonderful to claim credit for ‘Julian’ by Gore Vidal - Julian being the last pagan emperor of Rome. The narrative consists of a correspondence between two old, waspish philosophers that takes place 17 years after Julian’s mysterious death. The author uses contemporary material to re-create the life of his subject, which is remarkably well documented considering the fact that his name was reviled as ‘Julian the Apostate’. He has nevertheless remained something of an underground hero in Europe and ‘Julian’ furthers this romantic image without resorting to cheap romantic tricks. It may not be one of Vidal’s better known novels but it surely must rank as one of his finest. In ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’, Simon Raven broke the Bram Stoker mould of swirling cloaks and crypts to create the perfect up-to-date (1960) vampire tale - although the film version was a total embarrassment. Using his favourite backdrop of Lancaster College, Cambridge, an assortment of academic characters and an Aegean setting, Raven’s utilisation of the Greek vampire myth is a vivid tapestry of supernatural and superstitious illusion. ‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’ has all the ingredients of a classic horror story without the cheap ticks, because the sheer power of the writing lifts it well above the mundane clichés of other run-of-the-mill writers in the genre.
What are the common denominators?
All four books have a highly distinctive literary style and enviable use of language; each is an adventure, if not necessarily in the accepted sense of the word; none of the characters are pedestrian, stay-at-home people and each novel contains characters with brilliant minds. All the plots have an ‘otherworld’ element in the story-telling and none of them come to a satisfactory conclusion, leaving the reader with dozens of unanswered questions even after repeated readings.
 Perhaps it is the latter quality that gives them their unique appeal - in that by not having a real ending, the story goes on forever in the reader’s imagination.
That … and, of course, the delicious darkness.
Melusine Draco

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