Finally, alluring, disciplined, properly disturbing Gothic. Shepherd does The Undead proud!
However………….when a writer whose work I admire happens to write a book which features the pointy teethed, sanguinary creatures, that might well draw me in. The writer, not the genre.
Lynn Shepherd is a writer with a wonderful feel for nineteenth century literary fiction, primarily using classics of that period, as springboards to twist and skew and refocus, into detective novels. Her first, Murder at Mansfield Park, made a brilliant reversal of class and fortune out of Fanny Price, an Austen heroine who seemed far more pliant and submissive than most of Austen’s bright, intelligent women.
Her second, Tom All Alone’s (published in the States as The Solitary House) forayed into Bleak House.
Her third was a slight departure. Her central character, private detective Charles Maddox investigates events in the household of the Shelley/Godwin families. I found this third book more troubling, as she made free with the lives of real people, inventing unpleasantness around them. A Treacherous Likeness Like her second, this had another title in the States, as A Fatal Likeness
With her fourth, she returns to the territory of an original classic text, and writing something which her imagination takes her into a kind of parallel course with.
Having already stated I do not find the vampire genre appealing, I must also say I avoid ‘pastiches’ like the plague, because generally the original does the whatever so much better. The exception, is where something is written which is substantially different, substantially true to itself, and where acquaintance with the original can only delight and enhance reading of the new work – which, however, could PROPERLY be enjoyed on its own substantial merits, without any prior knowledge of ‘the original.
And, I must say, that knowing Shepherd had used the Bram Stoker novel, and her love of nineteenth century literature, and her understanding of place, time, culture and language of the period, and a kind of ability to inhabit the world of the original, I bought this book (not available as a download) eagerly, knowing I would not be disappointed.
And I wasn’t, I absolutely wasn’t. It becomes the fourth ‘vampire’ book I can read – and re-read – Stoker himself, Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, Marcus Sedgewick’s rather more scientific imagining A Love Like Blood and now, what Shepherd has done.
Her research into historical events (The Great Exhibition, scientific investigations, thinking, and inventions) not to mention her inhabitation of Stoker’s text, is prodigious – but lightly handled. I was swept up feverishly turning pages, and it was only in the pauses between reading that I thought about that research, that plotting, that characterisation, those little embroiders of the text that are sly nods to the original.
Inevitably, there IS gore (well, it is within the subject matter) and, yes, it is rather shocking and horrid, but, she really doesn’t luridly indulge the X-rated aspects. And the violence is also plausible, (sadly) in its manner
It’s quite a short book – 233 pages, and is – magnificent.
What I particularly love, love with Shepherd, is her delectable, precise use of language, her structure is beautifully measured, there is a real craft here, which does remind me so much of the more formal language of nineteenth century literature
I found it hard to believe so great a tempest could be coming, seeing the white mares’tails high in the pearly blue sky and the wide sweep of sea barely rippling in the breeze, but the man had some knowledge that I did not possess, for by sunset the clouds had amassed into great heaving battlements of every colour –red, violet, orange, and green, flaming at the west in the dying sun, and darkening behind us as the storm gathered pace. We could see far ahead in the distance, the lights of the little town my father told me was our destination, and as the wind began to rise the captain rigged the ship as high as he dared, desperate to outrun the storm and make port before nightfall. But there was no time. There was a moment of deathly stillness, when the wind seemed to die in the sails………I could hear sea-birds wailing like lost spirits above our heads
Yes, that is right, it’s the arrival, in an unholy storm, by sea, to Whitby
There are several stories going on here. Charles Maddox, like Jonathan Harker, visits the ‘Dracula character’ in his castle home in the Austro-Hungarian empire. And the bulk of the novel is written through the voice of the omnipotent author, describing Maddox’s thoughts and actions.
There is also a parallel story involving ‘Lucy’ the daughter of a kind of stage magician, performing magical acts, and capitalising on the growing success and fashion for spiritualism, in the wake of the American Fox Sisters. Lucy’s story is told in her journal, and is in the first person (from which you can deduce, Lucy’s is the arrival in the storm)
There is also the omnipotent authorial voice revealing herself to be the self-conscious writer of this book, occasionally making mentions of scientific and social advances which will come in time. This is not in any way intrusive (well, not to me, anyway) and adds another layer, reminding us that this is a referential piece, springing from an established literary heritage, and that writing itself has a history, and that there are cultural fashions in writing.
Shepherd is playful, and she plays well; I like the way she teased me into actively thinking about what I was reading, even whilst my heart was in my mouth and I was being swept along by the ‘what-next, what-next’ of narrative. I needed to be slowed down, to appreciate the detail
There is an afterword, which also explains how her springboard for this book was not only Bram Stoker’s text, but some real history. And I was pleased to note that no REAL persons were harmed in the telling of this story
There is, also a genuine shocker of a climax. One which is ultimately most satisfying
Curiously, as mentioned, this book is not available as digital download in the UK (though Statesiders can get it in this format) It was also not released as an ARC ahead of publication either for NetGalley, UK, or in Vine, UK. Sadly, I suspect Shepherd and her publishers have kept things very low profile indeed over here, following a rather injudicious comment Shepherd made about another author some time earlier this year or last, which attracted loyal fans of the other author out in droves to negative vote on all her previous works. She is a very fine writer, and I hope will be able to recover the growing appreciation she had had from readers, prior to her foolish outburst.