Thursday, March 29, 2012

Echoes of the Macabre: the short stories of Daphne du Maurier

The past few months I’ve found myself in an uncomfortable spot creatively. I am putting the finishing touches on my second novel, which involves lots of reading and editing and reworking and reading and editing and…well, you get the picture. It’s hard to get another novel under way when one is still in the birth canal, so to keep the juices flowing I’ve turned to shorter forms, and managed to eek out a novella and a short story as the novel nears its publication date.

For inspiration I turned to one of the twentieth century masters of the novella and short story, Daphne du Maurier, whose collections Kiss Me Again, Stranger, and Don’t Look Now occupy a shelf of honor above my computer next to other literary favorites such as Dickens, Shirley Jackson, and Tennessee Williams. These paperbacks have been in my collection for nearly forty years. They look it, and they smell it. So without further ado, let’s start with the title story, Kiss Me Again, Stranger.

This story deals with one of my favorite themes, obsessive love. Our unnamed narrator is a garage mechanic in post World War 2 England, aimlessly buffeted about by life until he becomes enamored of a beautiful cinema usherette and takes a late night bus ride with his new love to…a cemetery. One of the best things about du Maurier’s short stories are the endings. They tend to sneak up on the reader and smack you right in the face. Kiss Me Again, Stranger has a knockout ending and is a perfect start to this collection of masterpieces.

The centerpiece to the collection is the long novella, Monte Verita. I remembered it as being my favorite in this book, and re-reading it again after many years it’s easy to see why. This is the kind of old fashioned British storytelling that we don’t see much of these days. Today’s reader is accustomed to a more involved style of writing, what writers and readers refer to as “showing” as opposed to “telling”. A good two thirds of Monte Verita could be considered “telling”, but du Maurier’s command of language here is at its very best. Every sentence is a gem. We feel every arduous step of the many trips our mountain climbers take, especially up the titular mountain which is home to a mysterious sect of people who were once referred to sarcastically as moon worshippers. But again, the ending to this story reveals something altogether different. In the world of du Maurier’s macabre short pieces, you may think you know what’s going on, but you don’t.

Except in the case of The Birds, which might be the most famous short horror story of the twentieth century second only to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. If you are only familiar with The Birds through Hitchcock’s film version, drop everything and read it now. The Birds is straight forward. Seen through the eyes of a Cornish farmer and his family, the birds are taking over the world. There are no glamorous blond babes in fur coats, no questionable mother-son relationships, there are only the birds and a farmer and his family in a boarded up house in Cornwall, cut off from a world that may no longer exist. There is no ending this time, and the lack of catharsis is, to say the very least, chilling.

Don’t Look Now was filmed as a motion picture almost as famous to horror fans as the Hitchcock movie. Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 film is a nearly perfect reproduction of the story on film. For the unfamiliar, this is a puzzling tale involving a husband and wife, grieving over the death of their young daughter, who encounter a pair of sisters while on holiday in Venice, and become entangled in a mysterious web of psychic visions and premonitions. The ending is a shocker, one that viewers of the film will never forget. While du Maurier’s story and the film are virtually identical, the ending in the short story is a bit abrupt. If you blink, you might miss it. In the film, the imagery is driven home until it becomes indelible and will haunt you for years afterward.

Both these volumes are currently out of print, but were major best sellers in their day and any library would have copies available. Du Maurier’s stories are often mixed and matched in various collections that pop up on book store shelves every few years. If you only know du Maurier for her Gothic Romance, Rebecca, and if you have a taste for Gothic tales with a macabre twist, do yourself a favor and track some of these down. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Why Gothic? Conversations With Lisa Greer Part 2

In which Lisa and I continue our discussion about why we write what we write.

I, too, find that Victoria Holt's work lacks in spooky atmosphere, but the story lines are interesting and even controversial at times. I do like that aspect of her work. I can also relate to what you say about archetypes and journeys in Gothic Romance, and perhaps the introverted and cerebral nature of the heroine's journey is what appeals to me as well. I was quiet, studious, and a bit melancholy in my pre-teen and teen years, and so were many of the heroines that Phyllis A. Whitney, Barbara Michaels, Victoria Holt, and other masters of the genre wrote about. The innocent heroines are definitely thrust into frightening situations at the point where they are coming of age or are at some great turning point in life. Their isolation only adds to the fear factor and stakes for them. The journeys they take are often ones where they survive by their intelligence and wits, rather than by their great beauty which also is quite attractive to many women, I'd wager.

And yes, I do like the Wicked Mother archetype, don't I? I didn't realize it until after I'd written each work, but it does show up in my books quite often. In some of my upcoming works, I've explored the Wicked Father a bit which was fun. Other types that show up often in gothic romance--at least when I write it now-- are the Satanic figure (perhaps also the Wicked Father), the Wise Old Man and the Seer (gypsies and such). I know that I've seen the Trickster in your work as well. I'm thinking of The Haunting at Blackwood Hall and Banoub Bahktu, the creepy charlatan character.

As far as your writing, Barrymore, where do you think it falls on the spectrum of Gothic Romance to Gothic to Gothic horror and why?

That’s a tough question and one that I struggled with as I pitched Night of the Pentagram to agents. But once I had Black Valentines and The Haunting at Blackwood Hall under my belt, I’ve come to a better understanding of what is emerging in my work. In one respect they are Gothic Romance, because of the template they follow. From a marketing standpoint, I don’t think readers who pursue Gothic Romances for the romantic element will be satisfied, because in my stories the romantic relationship is doomed from the start. That doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a satisfying romantic subplot in a future work, but my own world view is far too cynical. There are so many psycho-emotional nuances to real world relationships that happy endings in fiction just don’t work for me. Look at two of the greatest contributions to the pantheon of Gothic literature, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. What emotional turmoil! And what do we have when we’ve reached the end of these stories? In Wuthering Heights everybody dies, only to continue their co-dependant relationship beyond the grave, and our fair Jane may have gotten her man, but at what a terrible price for everyone involved.

So I lean toward viewing my books as Gothic Horror, in part because they are trussed up with so much supernatural window dressing, which makes them horror, but they are more about the psychological experience of the characters than the sort of Grand Guignol horror that we have come to expect from Stephen King and Clive Barker and their descendants. I’ve been fascinated for years with psychology in general, and personality types as they appear in Jungian thought and Tarot work in specific, all of which has been a major influence on the characters I create.

Doomed relationships have always been a major theme in Gothic fiction, but social taboos also play a large part in the early Gothics and even some of those today. Wuthering Heights comes to mind in terms of these taboo themes. Heathcliff and Catherine as "siblings" who are in love and who have a romance as pre-teens and teens, even though he is adopted, is an interesting theme in its own right. All one has to do to see that such non-genetic sibling or familial relationships are considered incest or incest-lite and thrilling or forbidden is take a look at the bestsellers list for erotic romance. Of course, Poe's Fall of the House of Usher is an extreme example of the taboo of incest in the Gothic genre.

Another theme that comes into play in Wuthering Heights and other novels is that of falling in love with "The Other." Heathcliff is a dirty gypsy, or The Other, a dangerous outsider who upsets polite society. Catherine's unraveling and Heathcliff's too is that they ever meet and fall in love. The whole course of things is changed for them and for many of the characters in the novel.

Finally, another taboo theme from that novel and many others since is that of necrophilia. It is hinted at when Heathcliff digs up Catherine's body and tells others of it. Though he does not embrace her, he is obsessed with how she looks the same even in death. An interesting aspect of the taboos in this novel is the lengths that many fans and critics will go to deny that they exist. This website, for example, put together by a fan of the novel, is adamant about how incest and necrophilia are not part of the work.

However, I would argue that Bronte meant to shock readers and raise these themes. There are too many of them to ignore.

What do you think, Barrymore? I know in your novels, incest plays a role. In my second Gothic Romance, Moonlight on the Palms, it does as well when the heroine's own mother sleeps with the hero. It is sordid and meant to make the audience squirm and question what lies beneath polite society and why we fear the things we do.

My strict Christian upbringing forbade so many things that it is no wonder my writing is filled with characters with unhealthy obsessions. Not only were many things taboo for me as a child and teenager, as an adult I learned that some of those things that were preached against were actually occurring under our own roof. I think one of the most shocking moments in television history was the revelation of relationships in the Palmer family in the cult hit Twin Peaks. I think that was a major turning point in popular entertainment. Incest is a dirty subject, but it has happened to more families than we will ever really know.

In one of my books, a character that was abused by her father not only grows up to marry a man who reminds her of him, but winds up murdering them both! A tragic crime to be sure, but who can blame her. I think it is cathartic for people to read or watch stories where this type of deplorable crime is avenged. And there we have yet another theme in Gothic fiction, vengeance and revenge for crimes from the past.

To be continued...

Lisa Greer has four contemporary Gothic Romance novels under her belt including the just released Secrets of Summerspelle, available from Musa Publishing, as well as numerous short stories and novellas available for the Kindle through Amazon. My second novel, The Haunting at Blackwood Hall, will be released in June, 2012.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Something Burton This Way Comes

In the late 1990s, when we were all just learning to crawl around the Internet, I got involved with an online group of Dark Shadows fans. One of our favorite discussions was to pick our dream cast for a big screen remake. I chose Tim Burton to direct, Johnny Depp to play Barnabas, Christina Ricci as Angelique, and Helen Bonham Carter as Dr. Hoffman. I'll settle for two out of three. Tim Burton's Dark Shadows arrives in theaters Friday, May 11.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Classic Gothic Romance Cover Artists: Harry Bennett

Any fan of classic Gothic Romance paperbacks from the 1960s who religiously scavenges used book stores and trolls eBay to satiate their appetite is familiar with the remarkable covers of Harry Bennett. Not only did he sign his work, making them easy to identify, but along with Pocket Books’ art director, Milton Charles, he helped create a lushly romantic and easily recognizable style that was often imitated by other artists throughout the genre’s two decade heyday.

Harry Bennett was born in New York State, raised in Connecticut, and after a tour of duty in South America during World War II studied painting and illustration at Chicago’s American Academy of Art.

Harry was a facile master at medium and technique and managed to adapt with the times and his own interest. In the 1950's he used caseins, gouache, and oils. In the 1960's he variously used colored inks, collage, oil, acrylic, and spent years working with egg tempera. He was fascinated with the old masters' techniques and mediums and made his own egg tempera paints and oil paints as well. "Black oil", or 'maroger medium', was a personal favorite oil paint medium, based on recipes from Rubens and the Baroque painters.

Harry’s commercial career began in advertising where he created illustrations for Pepsi Cola and U.S. Keds, among others, before turning to book cover illustrations. The Gothic covers began to emerge in the late 1950s with his first egg tempera and oil glaze illustrations for such early Mary Stewart novels as Madam, Will You Talk? And Thunder on the Right. Already in Thunder on the Right we can see the beginning of the “windswept” look which would become more pronounced and clearly defined as his career as one of the premier illustrators of Gothic Romance paperbacks blossomed. While Harry created covers for the major paperback publishers of the day, Simon and Schuster's Pocket Books, Avon, Dell, Berkeley, and Bantam Books, Fawcett Crest was a leading reprint publisher for established best-selling novelists with large print runs. With only a minimum of effort collectors can easily turn up Harry Bennett covers on novels by such Gothic Romance luminaries as Barbara Michaels, Mary Stewart, Phyllis Whitney, and Victoria Holt.

In his 60s, Harry Bennett retired from the industry and pursued a lifelong dream: he moved to Oregon and spent the next twenty years pursuing his personal artistic vision painting and exhibiting original work. One of Harry’s greatest achievements was a series of more than 100 paintings created with ink over gessoed board for a 1966 edition of Dante's Divine Comedy (translation by Louis Biancolli, published by Washington Square Press).

I’ve had a lifelong affinity for the cover artwork of Harry Bennett. One of the first paperback novels I bought as a ten year old was Barbara Michael’s Prince of Darkness, and I have been hooked on Harry Bennett covers ever since. I search eBay on a regular basis, buying books I will never read just to have another Harry Bennett cover for my collection. It is a pleasure to be able to share these magnificent works of art with my readers here and other fans of paperback art throughout the internet. I would also like to extend my heartfelt appreciation to Harry’s youngest son, Tom, who has graciously corresponded with me providing more biographical material and anecdotes than I knew what to do with. Thank you Tom and thank you Harry Bennett.

In 2005, Harry Bennett enjoyed a collaborative exhibit with his son, artist Tom Bennett, at the Riversea Gallery in Astoria, Oregon. This article featuresrare internet photos of the artists together.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Vintage Paperbacks: The Chronicles of Don Sebastian

Recently I ran across a message board post requesting recommendations for historic horror novels. The first thing that crossed my mind was Les Daniels’ Chronicles of Don Sebastian, a series of five novels published by Ace and Tor in the late 70s and early 80s. I have an old paperback book rack where I keep and display vintage paperback novels and after pulling out my copies realized I only had four of the five. I logged onto eBay and within a week I had a brand spanking new copy of Yellow Fog. $4.00. Gotta love eBay. It came at the right time. I was between books and ready to read something short and sweet so I dove right in, knocking off this 300 page paperback in a few days.

The vampire Don Sebastian de Villanueva first appeared in The Black Castle (1978) which takes place in 1496 during the Spanish Inquisition. 1979 saw the publication of The Silver Skull which finds our anti-hero in 16th century Mexico. In Citizen Vampire (1981) he appears in France in 1789 during the French Revolution.

Like Hammer’s Dracula, you can’t keep a good vampire down, not even an evil one. Don Sebastian resurrects once again, this time disguised as spiritualist Sebastian Newcastle, in mid 19th century London, England. Yellow Fog tickles my Gothic bone in more ways than one. Daniels’ writing is exciting and evocative, much like a Hammer horror film come to life. It is a heady brew of drawing room séances, grave robbing, necromancy, and the ever present fog which chokes the streets of London by gaslight.

Unlike the earlier novels, the final installment, No Blood Spilled, is a direct sequel to Yellow Fog, opening with a descriptive passage in a Victorian insane asylum before transporting the reader to Calcutta, India, where Sebastian joins forces with a cult of assassins who have sworn allegiance to Kali Ma, the Goddess of Death and Destruction.

Though long out of print, a recent survey of eBay showed a number of the books in the series readily available at affordable prices. Daniels writes assuredly about the various histories he explores, but his books never fail to be quick reads which chill and thrill and most of all entertain. Lovers of vintage Gothic Horror will not be disappointed.