Soul of Gormenghast

If ever he had harboured a conscience in his tough narrow breast he had by now dug out and flung away the awkward thing – flung it so far away that were he ever to need it again he could never find it. High-shouldered to a degree little short of malformation, slender and adroit of limb and frame, his eyes close-set and the colour of dried blood, he is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy – some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.

Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake

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Night

To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.

The question of how feeble language becomes in the face of atrocity is addressed from the outset of Elie Wiesel’s courageous memoir of the Holocaust. I was only able to read certain passages in Elie’s memoir if I first convinced myself that the events depicted were fictional; it’s impossible to accept that acts of such senseless destruction truly did occur – but distancing ourselves from these stories won’t make them any less true. If reading Elie’s memoir was unsettling, I can’t imagine how intensely challenging the effort of sharing these experiences must have been for the author. How can everyday words be applied to an experience born out of the worst excesses of human cruelty?

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In placing his tumultuous experiences onto paper, Elie found language itself to be an inadequate medium. Words that would usually describe normal aspects of the human experience, such as ‘hunger’ or ‘transport’, were, Elie suggests, ‘betrayed and perverted by the enemy’. The experience of atrocity has altered the fabric of language itself. The death-knell shadow of the chimney loomed day and night over the teenage Elie as he suffered in Auschwitz; as death was the only constant feature of Elie’s reality, ‘chimney’ became the only word which described something tangible. I like to think, however, that by presenting his memoir to the world Elie Wiesel has firmly reclaimed the words that were bastardized in the concentration camps of World War Two.

Night is not only a memoir of a monumentally devastating epoch in world history, but an indispensable human document, one that we should never lose sight of. Elie’s memoir evokes a true test of faith, not just of Elie’s own religious faith but the faith of both author and reader in humanity itself.

Wuthering Heights

‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind…’

I have absolutely no idea why I waited so long to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I’ve been an admirer of the Brontes for years (though I do rate Tenant of Wildfell Hall much more favourably than the more renowned Jane Eyre). Wuthering Heights certainly did not disappoint: Bronte’s coupling of Dickensian lyricism with Gothic intrigue makes for an illuminating read. I think its success lies in its combination of the great Victorian preoccupations with inheritance, marriage and property, and the thoroughly unconventional character of Heathcliff. This brutally passionate and unrepentant man remains shocking to modern sensibilities.

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Heathcliff is a fascinating character, no doubt because it’s difficult to fully appreciate all the multi-faceted angles of his character at once. He exerts such a terrific pull over Catherine that their love is figured as an almost elemental force. But is this great capacity to love enough to redeem Heathcliff in the eyes of the reader? Their passion seems of another world; its unearthliness is never more pronounced than when Heathcliff orders the side of Catherine’s coffin broken open so that when he is laid to rest beside her, their bodies will dissolve together. He also has an endless capacity for cruelty; with his ‘sharp cannibal teeth’, he often seems more devil than man. The resonance of the novel rests on the enigma of Heathcliff’s character; his nature is a mystery it’ll take me another read to fully appreciate.

All Quiet on the Western Front

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will simply try to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war.

All Quiet on the Western Front presents an engaging account of life under seige in trenches. Next year marks the 100 year anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, and All Quiet‘s exploration of the dehumanising impact of war remains powerfully pertinent and affecting. What’s particularly striking is the youth of the soldiers. Paul Baumer and his classmates are all only 19 or 20 when they enter the battlefield for the first time. They represent the sacrifice made by a generation of young men and the devastation this sacrifice entailed; even those who survived the struggle would not leave the trenches unscarred. Erich Maria Remarque’s portrayal voices a growing distrust for the older generation, Paul’s teachers and leaders, who have encouraged and effectively condemned the young to fight and die in their steed. This critique can be extended to all politicians: those who make a country’s decisions are not typically made to directly face the consequences of those decisions. Young, fit men were sent to their deaths in their millions in order to defend an order imposed on them from above. The war casts a long shadow over the lives of its survivors: reclaiming normality after witnessing the horrors of war seems an impossibility.

allquietWar is also depicted as having a corrosive effect on those very things which make us human. The soldiers’ experience of life has been narrowed to base bodily functions and the persistent fear of death. They bear witness to the frequent destruction and disintegration of the human body; the elevated, spiritual aspects of man are rendered obsolete by this new, purely physical understanding of humanity. No human sympathy is afforded to enemy soldiers or prisoners, because such human feeling would render warfare impossible. Ultimately, All Quiet presents a meditation on the loss of humanity incurred through war, and a pertinent warning about the futility of such conflict.

The Woman in Black

Maybe you’re braver than I am, but watching the recent film adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black was an authentic horror movie experience: it succeeded in making me squeal, jump and eventually spend a large part of its duration cowering in my seat with my eyes covered. Perhaps I was just feeling distinctly un-Gryffindorish that day, but it felt like one of the most effective horror movies I’ve encountered in a long time. Now that I’ve finally recovered from the experience, I decided to return to the source material to address a crucial question: was the film’s success the product of a skilled page-to-screen adaptation, or the natural result of a genuinely spine-chilling tale?

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Susan Hill’s novel is no less visually engaging than its film counterpart, even though this immersive effect is achieved through radically different means. Hill oversees her narrative with unwavering control: she crafts a mounting sense of suspense throughout, leading to an accumulation of haunting images that are in many ways more powerful than the immediate gratification facilitated by film (not least because it forces the reader to fill in the gaps). Hill’s writing has a strong sensory effect that could never be matched by visual representation alone. The sense of smell, for example, is inflamed continually through The Woman in Black: the damp, rotting scent of Eel Marsh House lingers long after the protagonist flees the grounds. By stimulating the senses in this way, the reader is drawn into Hill’s world, which enables the novel to establish an almost painful degree of tension. The suspense is relieved only at the very last minute: the novel has an entirely different ending to the film, and I won’t spoil it for anyone planning to pick up the book, but suffice to say that it’s made abundantly clear from the outset that all is not well with Arthur’s apparently peaceful existence, and only at the very end will all your questions be answered.

So, it is possible for a book to be as effectively squeal-inducing as a horror movie? The answer, if Hill’s example is anything to go by, is a resounding yes.

The Diary of Anne Frank

I first read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was around 10 or 11 years old. Although I was aware by that age that Anne’s diary held extraordinary significance, I was unable to fully appreciate the gravity of her story, and so I decided to return to Anne’s diary again recently. Before I share my thoughts on Anne’s story, I think a short disclaimer is necessary: I don’t pretend to be an expert on Anne Frank’s life or on the political context which defined her experiences. My approach is informed only by my curiosity as a reader.

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Knowing how Anne’s story ends, it’s impossible to start reading her diary without feeling a sense of trepidation. It would be slightly easier to embark on a story which ultimately leads to the horrors of the concentration camps if it was possible to remain detached, but I’d challenge anyone not to grow attached to Anne’s voice. She shows a natural capacity for writing, and her penmanship captures the heart of the reader from the outset. I’m convinced that even if the historical context which shaped and abruptly ended Anne’s life were to be removed, her diary would persist as a great literary document, simply on the basis of the quality of her writing itself. It’s incredible to consider that Anne was only 13 years old when she received her diary as a birthday present: ‘The first to greet me was you, possibly the nicest of all.’

Reading Anne Frank’s diary reminded me of John Green’s discussion of Escape from Camp 14which details the escape of Shin Dong-hyuk from a concentration camp in North Korea.  John Green made the perceptive point that we have a tendency to expect those caught up in the worst instances of human cruelty to be somehow super-human, and for their struggles to prove the enduring strength of the human spirit.  Shin Dong-hyuk undermines this expectation: his experiences in the camp eroded his humanity, and his escape was driven by hunger, not by an inviolable human desire for freedom. This tension between our expectations of figures like Dong-hyuk and their own natures is fascinating when applied to Anne Frank’s diary. She has been elevated to an almost saint-like status, and not unjustly so, but viewing her solely in this light undermines, I think, the very qualities which make her story so incredible. Anne is a normal, foible, adolescent girl, who feels bored and depressed and fearful for her future, who misses her school friends and harbours a crush on fellow Annex-dweller Peter. Anne’s everyday problems are continually overshadowed by news of deaths and disappearances in the outside world, and she herself is torn between feeling fortunate at her escape and tortuously bored by her enforced captivity.

The Diary of Anne Frank is, of course, a devastatingly tragic story. I still can’t quite comprehend the horror of the Holocaust in its entirety. After spending 200+ pages in Anne’s company, it’s impossible to close the book with dry eyes. Her allusions throughout the diary to a time after the war, when she envisions herself, for example, becoming a professional writer and raising a family of her own, make for frequent moments of sharp and powerful grief. Since the publication of her diary in 1947, Anne’s story has created an awe-inspiring legacy. So as long as people keep discovering and reading her diary, the tragic end to Anne’s life will always be followed by a hopeful epilogue.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher details the infamous case of the abduction and murder of three-year-old Saville Kent in an English country house in 1860. At the start of the text, the cast of characters is presented as in a play, and the floorplan of Road Hill House laid out like the map of a fantasy kingdom; the names and property, however, once belonged to a real family caught up in a horrific tragedy, which transformed their home from a domestic sanctum into the scene of a brutal murder. Kate Summerscale draws upon an extensive body of research to provide a reconstruction of the events of the Road Hill case, and centres her story around the investigation of the detective Jack Whicher.

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Saville Kent’s murder cut straight to the heart of Victorian sensibilities. The case opened up the family home to public scrutiny, leading to an unsettling new perspective on the idealised Victorian family. The remarriage of Samuel Kent, Saville’s father, to the family governess presented a troubling thought, abetted by the likelihood of the two engaging in an adulterous relationship while Samuel’s first wife was still alive. The conventional perception of children was similarly undermined by the scrutiny of the Kent family, as it emerged that murderous desires could lie dormant under the most angelic of facades. The investigation itself tore apart the idea that a home provided a place of security: the investigating officers quite literally riffled through the family’s dirty linen. The cheap thrills offered by tabloid journalism and the vicarious excitements of sensation fiction entangled with the case, which dominated the public imagination for decades to come. Subverting the cultural norms of Victorian society lent the case an enduring notoriety, which persists even in the 21st-century, as the success of Summerscale’s novel and the subsequent TV adaptation attests.

A particularly interesting aspect of Summerscale’s account of the case is the way in which real life entwines with the course of fiction. This parallel is reflected in the structure of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher itself, which dresses up the true facts of the case in the guise of a novel. By 1860, detectives had formed an arm of the London metropolitan police for almost twenty years, yet their status within society remained undetermined. On the one hand, the detective presented a reassuring figure, an officer of the law capable of solving the puzzles of villainy and restoring order to the narrative of public life. On the other hand, the detective was often perceived as an invasive presence, partly due to the working class origins of the officers. Contemporary literature mirrors this duality, presenting detectives as both effective and morally ambiguous. The idea of the locked-house mystery, in which the culprit must be an insider, has had a profound impact on detective and horror fiction, while the failure of the Kent’s guard dog to raise the alarm may have influenced Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sherlock Holmes notes the curious incidence of the dog’s failure to bark at an intruder, which suggests that the perpetrator was familiar to the household. In addition, the marriage between Samuel and Mary Kent mirrors the plot of both the earlier Jane Eyre and the subsequent Lady Audley’s Secret: the man of the house ignores his mad first wife in order to court the family governess.

Unlike fiction, however, real-life detectives cannot tie up all the loose ends and bid the reader farewell with the reassuring message that villains will always meet their just deserts. The confession of his killer will not restore life to the butchered body of Saville Kent, and the darker secrets of the family remain forever hidden from investigators. Perhaps that’s why the best loved of detective stories, like Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, undermine the cosy idea of narrative closure, as real life often fails to provide us with such comfort.