At the Blue Met: The Children of Mary Shelley

This past literary season, I attended several events, including the Blue Metropolis festival and Le Congrès Boreal. Posts on each event are forthcoming. Today’s post is about the panel discussion I attended at Blue Met entitled “The Children of Mary Shelley.”

Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein
Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein

Frankenstein, which celebrates its 200th publication anniversary this year, has often been called the first science fiction novel. While Frankenstein’s monster is a recognizable figure in pop culture, it has its origin in the nested epistolary narratives of Shelley’s Gothic bildungsroman. To what extent can today’s science fiction trace its roots back to Frankenstein, given the vital, diversified, and increasingly popular genre it is today?

The moderator, Su J. Sokol, asked the panelists what was so groundbreaking about Frankenstein when it first appeared in print in 1818. Was it the first SF novel?

Amal el-Mohtar, the first panelist, responded that it was certainly “a first,” even if not “the first” SF novel. She referenced Awaj bin Anfaq, North African alien contact story written in the thirteenth century, to suggest that science fiction has much earlier, non-Western origins. However, there is something to be gained, she said, in tracing SF’s origins back to Mary Shelley, since women authors tend to be underrepresented in SF, a genre often defined by how “STEM-y” it is.

Cyrano de Bergerac’s Voyages to the Moon and the Sun could qualify as science fiction avant la lettre, so I would concur with Amal: Frankenstein is by no means “the first” SF novel, even in the West. But it remains a politically meaningful gesture to trace the genre’s origin’s back to Mary Shelley.

Melissa Yuan-Innes, the second panelist, made the interesting point that Frankenstein is not terribly “STEM-y” when you look at it closely. Though there is some (pseudo)science in what Victor does to reanimate the dead, he is highly irresponsible ethically. Furthermore, he works in isolation, while scientists typically work in research teams, sharing the results of their knowledge. Perhaps it is this isolation that makes Victor’s experiments with reanimating the dead seem so wrong.

David Demchuk, the third panelist, dissented. He paraphrased Samuel “Chip” Delaney’s observation that Frankenstein isn’t really science fiction at all–it’s Gothic fiction. The book is less about hard scientific inquiry and more about an ethical question: “How do you imbue something with the spark of life, and if you do that, what is your responsibility?”

David also pointed out that Victor tends to look towards past knowledge, such as alchemy and the works of Paracelsus and Galen. However, science fiction is a genre that typically looks toward the future. Thus, Frankenstein exists simultaneously as a past-focused Gothic novel and future-oriented proto-science fiction novel; it stands at a crossroads between old and new ways of understanding nature.

Listening to the panelists, I remembered just how different the novel is from various Frankenstein films. Amal pointed out that the monster’s interiority is mediated through several levels of epistolary narration, which is usually lost on film. (As an aside, I remember that the Frankenstein episode on the 90s children’s TV show Wishbone showed the framing narrative, which takes place in the Arctic.)

The monster’s self-education is another feature of the novel that doesn’t get enough attention. In Shelley’s novel, the monster learns how to speak clearly and in an erudite fashion by reading Milton’s Paradise Lost. Though he may be ugly, he speaks like a rational soul. Melissa underlined this point, stating that the monster’s physical ugliness should not be taken to correspond with an ugly morality, just as Victor’s handsomeness does not mean he is a moral person.

What really interested me was when Amal pointed out that feminist scholars have interpreted the monster’s self-education as an analogy for the reality of women’s education at the time. Mary Shelley was self-taught and read novels on her own because women were denied the full education men received. Furthermore, at the time it was thought that women should be discouraged from reading, because reading novels “inflamed” women’s minds, much like reading Milton “inflames” the monster’s mind. But really, the reason the monster acts violently is because of educational neglect, suggesting how detrimental the neglect of women’s education can also be.

This argument appealed to me because I’d assumed most femininst interpretations of Frankenstein followed the idea that the monster’s story is an allegory of childbirth-gone-wrong. The monster’s education as an analogy for women’s education seems a more authentic analogy for women’s actual experiences, especially the experiences of a self-educated, literary woman like Mary Shelley.

All this goes to show that Victor Frankenstein’s monster is not really a monster, but a creature who has suffered horrendous neglect. And it is Victor’s neglect of his creation that turns him into the true monster.

Overall, “The Children of Mary Shelley” was a highly productive and fascinating panel. Although the Blue Metropolis festival tends to focus more on literary fiction, I hope to attend more science fiction and fantasy-based panels at the festival in the future.

If you liked this post, you might like

 

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Weird #1 The Other Side (excerpt) by Alfred Kubin (1908)

Underworld as Otherworld: Combined and Uneven Development in Charles de Lint’s Urban Fantasy Fiction

World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part III: Challenging the Canon

 

 

 

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Weird #5 Casting the Runes by M.R James (1911)

Book reviewing can be a perilous profession, especially when the author of the book in question knows a thing or two about alchemy and Runic magic. In such cases, it is not advised to write an overly negative review, for fear of reprisals on the part of the sorcerer in question. Unfortunately, in M. R. James’s 1911 weird tale “Casting the Runes,” the reviewer, Mr. Harrington, learns this lesson the hard way, and let his fate be a lesson to those in his profession!

M.R. James is a classic author of weird fiction and one of the more influential writers included in Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales. According to the anthologists, he has influenced H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Ramsey Campbell, and Tanith Lee. His ghost stories are “widely regarded as among the finest in English literature” and they forego the “Gothic trappings” of the supernatural tale to innovate the evolving genre of the weird tale (56). There are no dark castles, vampires, ghosts, or stormy nights in “Casting the Runes,” but there is a bizarre ad on an electric tramway: a notice of the death of Mr. John Harrington, who once negatively reviewed Mr. Karswell’s History of Witchcraft and lived just long enough to regret it.

The man who sees this notice is Mr. Dunning, a specialist in alchemy working for the British Museum and a consultant responsible for the rejection of the same manuscript. Karswell seeks revenge for the rejection of his poorly punctuated book of sorcery, which was, “in point of style and form, quite hopeless” (58). But are the evil rituals of Mr. Karswell more credible than the book’s grammar?

It turns out that Mr. Harrington died shortly after receiving a program at a musical concert that contained a slip of paper printed with a set of red and black runes. The cunning Mr. Karswell, who wrote a chapter on “casting the Runes” in his book, speaks of this form of magic in a way that seems, to Henry Harrington, the deceased’s brother, “to imply actual knowledge” (64). Dunning becomes his next target. Thus, it is up to himself and Henry Harrington to stop Karswell from taking out an uncanny form of revenge.

“Casting the Runes” offers a variation on the empiricism versus supernaturalism dialectic at play in much supernatural fiction. It is fairly common to see supernatural fiction writers pit a scientific explanation of uncanny phenomena against a supernatural explanation, like Blackwood does in “The Willows” and Crawford does in “The Screaming Skull.” Most frequently, the narrator struggles to resolve this epistemological conflict, but falls victim to the supernatural forces at play. However, M.R. James follows a different tact from the authors included thus far in the VanderMeer anthology.

Harrington and Dunning are able to put this epistemological conflict aside to deal with Karswell’s threat as a solvable problem, treating magic under the assumption that it works. In the end, after executing a switch of luggage with Karswell on a train, Dunning and Harrington cast the runes that had been intended for Dunning back onto Karswell himself. Later, he is “instantly killed by a stone falling from the scaffold erected round the north-western tower [of St Wulfram’s Church at Abbeville], there being, as was clearly proved, no workman on the scaffold at that moment” (67). Harrington had learned the rules of rune casting from his brother’s death and puts this knowledge to use in order to help save Dunning. This is a substantial innovation. It is almost as if, by shedding the medievalism of traditional Gothic fiction in which modern people become victimized by the ghosts of the past, James has led the weird tale into the brave new world of the modern era, where this ancient phenomena can be controlled by humans and put to utilitarian use.

As a final note, it is interesting to see how the supernaturalism/empiricism dialectic maps onto a conflict between print culture and oral culture in “Casting the Runes.” Karswell’s book is not only unbelievable, but incompetently written, and one senses that the reason the publishers were so dismissive of Karswell had as much to do with his incompetence at the printed word as his being a magician. Yet, when communicating orally, Karswell’s competence is undeniable. The book “was written in no style at all–split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise” (64). Yet, Harry Harrington admits that Karswell “spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge” (64). The conflict between empiricism and the supernatural is here drawn along lines of print literacy; though Karswell’s magic is unbelievable in print, the truth of his magic is apparent when communicating orally. The runes themselves, an “odd writing” (63), may even suggest an uncanny in-between form of writing that blurs the boundaries between a largely oral pagan culture and our print-dominated modern culture.

This concludes my discussion of “Casting the Runes.” Next week, I will discuss “How Nuth Would Have Practised His Art Upon the Gnoles” (1912), a work of weird fiction by that classic author of fantasy Lord Dunsany.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Feel disconnected from your childhood lately? Although I am not a licensed psychiatrist, or a doctor of any sort, let me recommend to you The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

Never fear: it is not a pill that is bitter to the taste, although it is certainly not sugar coated. Inviting and familiar, it runs down smooth, putting you right to sleep and bringing you straight into the dream-realm, where you re-experience horrors you may have forgotten from your childhood—or perhaps some you still remember.

“I remember my own childhood vividly … I knew terrible things. But I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Such words were spoken by Maurice Sendak in Gaiman’s epigraph to his short novel. The line of dialogue might have been spoken by the protagonist of Ocean.

Like a frequent number of Gaiman’s novels (including American Gods and Anansi Boys), Ocean opens with a funeral. The name of the deceased and the name of the middle-aged narrator are never mentioned. However, from the very first line, we are aware the protagonist has unresolved childhood issues, as he seeks out the old (very old) Hempstock Farm, near the duck pond at the end of the lane near his now-demolished childhood home.

Lettie Hempstock, who was his only friend from when he was seven years old, has moved to Australia. But there is far more to her than meets the eye. She called the duck pond at the end of the lane an ocean, and though she appeared to be twelve years old, she had an ageless look in her eyes and a familiarity with the supernatural world well beyond her years.

Trouble begins when an opal miner from South Africa commits suicide in a stolen car at the end of the lane. The event triggers a series of mysterious happenings. It is not long before the middle-aged man’s seven-year-old self is drawn into the very thick of it. Adventures involving monstrous nannies, thunderstorms, hunger birds, and fairy rings ensue. Lettie is the boy’s only hope of returning to the normal world and he must hold onto her hand for dear life, when faced with terrors that threaten to undo everything he treasures.

In the midst of these horrors, Gaiman writes with poetry and humour. The chapters of The Ocean at the End of the Lane read like highly sensory, nostalgic vignettes, where one indulges in the feeling and breathing in of childhood memories. He does this without becoming a William Wordsworth, leaving Tintern Abbey for the Gothic ruins of another, more dangerous supernatural world.

Me and Neil.
Me and Neil at the Rialto.

Gaiman’s casual mentioning of the impossible creates humour, such as when Old Mrs. Hempstock investigates the age of a coin by looking at it hard enough to see electron decay. That particular moment also made the Rialto Theatre in Montreal burst our laughing, when Gaiman was in town for his book tour—an event I was lucky enough to attend.

Fusing the realistic present-day to the fantastic and the cosmologically ancient has to be Gaiman’s signature way to set up a story. It makes for a combination that causes us to look in our own world for traces of the fantastic. The Ocean at the End of the Lane reminds us of this supernatural presence in our world and invites us to look back upon the dark corners and in-between spaces of our childhood, where we did not always follow the paved, repeatedly-traveled roads that adults follow out of routine.

Many readers who pick up this book will be inspired to run across fields and forests and leap over fences, or, if they prefer, only take the road less traveled. An excellent cure for the ennui of adulthood, Ocean makes for an ideal end-of-summer read.

Neil Gaiman, author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Neil Gaiman, author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Photo Credits

Neil Gaiman: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/books/211547701.html

Cover Page: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15783514-the-ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere

 

 

It’s an entire world just under your feet, in the vast underground networks that form the urban environment, where people who’ve fallen through the cracks of society vanish from our everyday reality.

Such is the setting of Neil Gaiman’s urban quest fantasy Neverwhere. One of his older novels, it was originally based on a 1996 TV series on BBC Two. It is now a BBC radio series, staring James MacEvoy as Richard Mayhew, Natalie Dormer as Door, and, among others, Christopher Lee as the Earl of Earl’s Court and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Angel Islington. While I have only read the novel, it is a definite sign of the durability of Gaiman’s story that it has seen so many incarnations in diverse media.

Neverwhere is the journey of an Everyman Scotsman name Richard Mayhew, who finds a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. After this encounter, his normal everyday life is ruined as he loses his job, his girlfriend, and indeed his very identity. No one recognizes him in the London of this world (called London Above), and he must find a way to get his life back.

Door, the girl he finds on the sidewalk, is a resident of London Below, an alternate world that exists in the metro systems, sewers, and underground tunnels beneath London Above. Its a world of hobos, aristocrats, rat-speakers, sadistic killers, monsters, and even angels. As Richard quests to find a way out of London Below, since it is impossible to live wholly in both worlds at the same time, he becomes involved in a quest to find who is responsible for the murder of Door’s family.

Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar
Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar

The villains of Nerewhere are just as memorable as the heroes, if not more so. Mr. Croup is a wordy, fox-like assassin who tears his victims apart with his fingernails and wears a raggedy old suit. Mr. Vandemar is a wolfish sadist who picks his fingernails with a machete and doesn’t like telephones. They are like a darker, but still funny version of your typical Disney villain trio–Don Quixote and Sancho Panza with switchblades. There are other villains in the story, but they are surprises.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Neverwhere, especially after finishing a semester of university. It’s ideal reading on the metro (or the Tube, if you wish), because there can be no better place to read Neverwhere than in the underground world where it’s supposed to take place. I read most of it myself in the Montreal metro.

Which leads me to wonder. Is there a Montreal Below, as there is a Montreal Above? I guess I just assumed there could be. Perhaps there is.

Gaiman appears to have done some research into the London Underground writing his book. He talks about “ghost stations” like the British Library Station, which was walled-in a long time ago and, needless to say, is closed to commuters. There is quite a lot of history in the underground world. I would doubt that there are ghost stations in Montreal Below, but Montreal could still have an interesting subterranean civilization, if we were to imagine one developing.

The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.
The metro system in Montreal. Do we see a Montreal Below when we look at this map? Click to see a more legible version.

All the shopping malls in the passages under the city, all crisscrossing each other like a labyrinth, might prove ample room to place a alternate world, similar to the feudal-like society Gaiman imagines in Neverwhere. Promenades de la cathédrale, where engineers built a shopping mall under Christ Church Cathedral, could be a key location in Montreal Below. Perhaps Monk, a station on the Green Line, could have a band of monks similar to the Black Friars we see in his book (a pun on Blackfriars Station). What about the dukedom of Vendôme? The barony of Jarry? La seigneurie de Plamondon? Or what about le marquis de Rosemont as the counterpart of the marquis de Carrabas, a swashbuckling character in London Below? And don’t forget the angel residing at Station St. Michel!

Such a world would be an interesting combination of a British-inspired universe with French Canadian characters and settings. Hopefully, the result of such cultural fusion would end in a little more than a Montreal Below that resides exclusively within the potholes that appear on our roads each spring! Gaiman’s underworld is a world of people who have “fallen through the cracks,” after all.

Ah, we Montrealers take every opportunity to complain about our roads!

To avoid this post becoming like an opinion article in The Gazette, let me say a few words to conclude.

Gaiman is a storyteller extraordinaire. His novel reads almost like a bedtime story, except that it’s for adults (teenagers can get away with it). It’s a brilliant combination that reminded me about the nightmares in his Sandman comics. In fact, I almost felt like I was reading a comic book or a graphic novel at a few points, without the pictures or graphics. If you have not read Neverwhere, and you’re a Gaiman fan, then it’s a novel not to be missed. It was a lot of fun. Take it on your next metro ride through the world Below.

 

Photo Credits:

Croup and Vandemar: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/neverwhere/images/819335/title/mr-croup-mr-vandemar-fanart

Montreal Metro: http://www.stm.info/english/metro/a-mapmet.htm

Neil Gaiman: http://www.myspace.com/neilgaiman1

Neverwhere cover: http://jenniferdawnbrody.com/tag/neverwhere/

 

Vision: Evening Prayer

The date was Sunday 6 August 2012. I had entered the chapel of the monastery in Taizé, France, late at night during the service of evening prayer. I had scarcely slept since arriving in Paris and after two days in the City of Lights, I was exhausted.

I was in the state of waking in which, if you close your eyes long enough, you experience flickers of unconsciousness and you become briefly deafened to sound—like dipping your toe into the unfathomable pool of sleep and drawing it out quickly again. While the brothers of the monastery recited the Gospel in several languages, my mind carried the brother’s words off into another kind of narration that echoed the Gospels but attained a more disturbing, Gothic tone and subject matter.

I do not presume to say that the story below is exactly the one my unconscious narrated to me at that moment, but there are some nodal points that unite the two narrations. The haunting persona was there initially, the association with Romeo and Juliet was there, and the misty forest landscape of rural France presented itself powerfully to me at that moment

In putting the disconnected images and feelings together into a linear narration, I have inevitably butchered and sawed my experience into digestible pieces—a necessity, but unfortunate. Nonetheless, you will gain a sense the general feeling that my ‘vision’ produced within me.

Now, time to quit my chattering Romantic persona and get to the prose piece:

 Gothic ruins and graveyard

Vision: Evening Prayer”

Outside the lapses of silence, there is a Kyrie and a hallelujah; outside the sung prayers, a thunderbolt crackles the air outside. Late days and early mornings have driven me to claim what I desire, rest. But I will stand vigil and not lose myself to sleep. My eyes are shut and my head sinks low, almost against my will. Then, a reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew.

I remember the words flowing through the brother’s mouth. To say I do not remember would be a lie. But the words came to me in a state hovering between light and shadows. I would tell the truth. The words changed ownership and I fell away.

***

When Sunday was over, Marie went to the tomb. It was early on the first day of the week, the sun having just risen. It is cold around her legs still, as she runs through the mist and forest. She dashes and skips, cracking twigs underfoot in her urgency.

She is running from something predatorial.

She does not know the origin of this fear. She merely senses something behind her, puffing shallow breath. Suppose she is a milkmaid from a French village a few kilometres from Paris. She has lived a green life, in the fields, approaching the forest warily, living in a stone house with roses near the porch and a beehive growing in the weathered stone wall. She had fallen in love, a deadly vulnerability.

As she flees down the unmarked path, Marie says to herself, “Who will roll away the stone from the entrance to the tomb?”

I shall. She has gone to give her respects to one dearly departed, who is not truly dead. She suspects him to be the gardener—there is a garden in the forest glade, near the old tomb—and so ignores him as his back is turned to her. Let the gardener handle himself. Because something is chasing her. The eye in the shadow tracking her is mine.

The gardener casts his gaze in search of her, but the only figure his eye catches, approaching through the mist, is mine.

When Marie reaches the tomb, she sees the stone has already been moved. She sees a young man sitting on it, dressed in a white robe, skin pale as death. “They have taken my Romeo and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Do not be afraid,” I say from atop the stone. “Romeo has risen from his sleep of death. He was never truly dead. He drank a special poison, and now he awaits you. He is standing over his tombstone, triumphant over the grave.”

Marie enters the tomb. She sees Romeo, his feet dangling over a crossed headstone, swaying in the draft.

Her screams fill the tomb as she jumps back and turns to run. She could say nothing else because of her terror and she was very afraid.