And so we come to the second guest to take up my challenge of saving just eight books from her collection, Mari Biella. Mari is another of those people who seems always to have been writing. "I can’t remember a time when I wasn't writing in one way or another," she tells me, "and my mother still has a number of embarrassing childhood poems and stories to prove it!
From the first pages of The Physic Garden, the shadow of grief and betrayal looms large. Catherine Czerkawska draws us into the heart of that betrayal and the pain it has caused, whilst simultaneously withholding its precise nature and full extent until the final pages. The truth, when it comes, is shattering – and all the more so for the lack of sensationalism with which it is presented. There are no real villains here, and no easy black and white moral judgements. Lyrical and beautifully observed, The Physic Garden encompasses both the ongoing cycle of social change and the subtle intricacies of human behaviour and relationships.
Set in Glasgow around the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, the novel is narrated by William Lang, a gardener employed by Glasgow University. Lang’s job is to tend the ‘Physic Garden’, growing curative plants for the use of the Faculty’s doctors. Medicine, a science that is still in its infancy, has not yet outgrown its roots in folk remedies; and this in turn is emblematic of the novel’s theme of both the connection and the tension between old and new, between past, present and future. In many ways, Lang is reminiscent of a world that must once have seemed as stable and enduring as the turning of the seasons: a world of country folk, trying to make the most of their limited circumstances, following the only pattern of life they have ever known.
Yet the world is changing, and in a certain sense Lang seems to be located at the cusp of that change. His work as a gardener has changed little since the days when his father did the same job, and he still feels attuned to the old country ways: ‘It was auld wives who knew about plants and their health-giving properties.’ Through his association with the University, however, he comes into contact with the medical men who are attempting to study illnesses and their treatment through a scientific lens, and they in turn influence his perspective. Foremost amongst these influences is Thomas Brown, a doctor of botany with whom Lang strikes up a deep and abiding friendship.
The backdrop – a society undergoing profound and, in many ways, painful change – is always in evidence in the novel. Lang talks of his father, for example, who ‘like Canute … stood among his plants, head bowed before the onslaught of the incoming industrial tide.’ This is, after all, not only the era of the Industrial Revolution but also of the Scottish Enlightenment. The ferment of ideas, and of industrial, social and scientific progress, is part of the fabric of the story. It is an exciting time – old standards are being held up to scrutiny, and new ideas explored – and yet, like all advances, this one is not without its problems and victims. One very obvious victim is the Physic Garden itself, which is slowly being destroyed by the industrialisation of Glasgow, despite Lang’s desperate attempts to keep it alive. Other victims are the people who must, for good or for ill, live (and die) in this changing world.
This is not simply an abstract concern: it has profound, and tragic, implications for both Lang and Brown, and will eventually play a part in their estrangement. Both men take up slightly different stances in this struggle of ideas; both act with integrity, and have good reasons for their actions. Indeed, the saddest thing about their rift is that both protagonists are, essentially, good men. Brown is unaffected by snobbery, devoted to his work and ideals, and generous. Lang is compassionate, faithful to his loved ones, and devoted to the pursuit of knowledge in spite of his humble origins. Their friendship should have lasted for the remainder of their lives; but the betrayal, when it comes, is so shocking, so utterly shattering to friendship and trust, that it inevitably draws the two men apart. They are both crushed by what happens; and the reader cannot help but be crushed too.
The world has obviously changed immensely since the turn of the 19th century, but the questions raised by The Physic Garden remain as relevant as ever. The ‘incoming tide’ of social, industrial and scientific change remains a constant, and continues to bring problems in its wake. Medical advances bring immense benefits, and yet the question of medical ethics is as vexed as ever. The occasional clashes between the drive for medical progress and the interests of the people who are supposed to be benefited by such progress are as problematic today as they ever were. Every innovation and new piece of knowledge comes at a price, and it is often ordinary people who end up paying. At what point do we say that the price is too high?
Reviewed by Mari Biella
A member of the Reading Between The Lines collective
For more reviews click here.
If you Ghouls have visualised violence and suffering for what you see as your creations, for the sake of drama you must press on and depict it. Truly, you act as gods.
Treading similar ground to Asimov’s short story Author! Author!, Aleks Sager’s Daemon is constructed around a premise that will probably strike many writers as being wonderful, terrifying, or both: what if one of your characters were able to step out of the pages of your work, and into your everyday world? What if the being who had hitherto existed solely in your mind suddenly began to exist in actual fact? Would you welcome the chance to meet your creature, and – more importantly, perhaps – would your creature welcome the chance to meet you? Would your character thank you for creating him or her, or hate you for it?
This is the problem that faces successful author Aleks Sager when his protagonist, Ivan Ostrowski – whom he has tormented mercilessly, if fictionally – steps out of the pages of his novel, and straight into Sager’s glamorous world of agents and publishers, models and actors, and socialites and social climbers. Ostrowski, enraged and embittered by Sager’s treatment of him, is intent on revenge – and what better form of revenge than to set himself up as Sager’s rival in love? The object of both men’s affections is Natalie, a beautiful but rather vacant model who, by her own admission, hardly ever reads books, and is therefore, at first sight at least, an unlikely choice of paramour for a writer.
Natalie, however, forms one of the many haunting parallels that exist between Sager’s life and that of his literary hero, Aleksandr Pushkin (the fictional Ivan Ostrowski is a relative of Pushkin’s hero, Eugene Onegin). Sager’s passion for Natalie echoes that of Pushkin for Natalya Nicholaevna Goncharova, a sixteen-year-old society beauty who would later become his wife. Just as in the case of Sager and Natalie, the match raised both eyebrows and questions: was Goncharova Pushkin’s redeemer, or his downfall? Was she a good wife in the traditional sense, or not? (Readers new to Pushkin need not worry about these parallels: the Pushkin connection is never laboured or heavy-handed, and Elliot provides explanatory notes at the end, including a short biography of Pushkin.)
Indeed, for a novel that owes much of its inspiration to the life of ‘the Russian Shakespeare’, Aleks Sager’s Daemon is remarkably un-laboured. The first few pages alone are indicative of this, describing a sexual encounter with hilarious (if occasionally painful) honesty, and an absolute lack of romantic idealism:
‘There? How about There? Is That it?’ He doesn’t see the humour in the situation. His tone of irritation held just in check guarantees that it isn’t There or There or Anywhere.
I imagine that many a female reader will be nodding and smiling at this point.
Sager himself is cheeky, complex, arrogant, charming, and occasionally cruel. He wins the reader over just as he gradually wins over an initially unimpressed Natalie. Natalie herself becomes a deeper and more sympathetic character as her life is altered irrevocably by Sager’s love and Ostrowski’s terrifying intrusion into her world. By the time their story reaches its terrible climax (those parallels with Pushkin, remember) we’re rooting for them – and we’re saddened by what happens to them.
Aleks Sager’s Daemon is a rich, clever, satisfying exploration of the relationship between the creature and the creator, of the interdependent nature of literary texts, and of the multi-layered nature of reality. If you’re a reader, you’ll probably appreciate it on that basis alone. If you’re a writer, you may find that it raises a few interesting questions about the misery you occasionally inflict upon your characters. You don’t need to worry, of course: your characters only exist in your own mind, and don’t really suffer – or do they?
Reviewed by Mari Biella
A member of the Reading Between The Lines collective
For more reviews click here.
Horror is a disreputable yet strangely durable genre. It is attacked, disparaged, and often simply ignored; and yet it is defiantly alive, or at least stubbornly undead. What better time than Hallowe’en to examine its curious appeal, its many tricks and treats?
First of all, what exactly is horror? According to the wondrous fount of knowledge that is Wikipedia , horror is “a genre of literature which is intended to, or has the capacity to, frighten … scare or startle readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror.” Immediately, one might feel justified in questioning the definition. American Psycho and Revolutionary Road are examples of books that scared and startled me personally, and yet I doubt that either would be tagged as “horror” in the conventional sense of the word. Still, it’s as valid a definition as any I’ve heard. Horror is, above all, about fear.
Fear. It’s a primal response, every bit as primal as hunger or sexual desire, and in most traditional systems of morality these base animal instincts are seen as things be overcome, to be subordinated to reason or godliness or the good of society, or whichever higher truth you happen to believe in. Horror, however, far from encouraging us to conquer our fears, actively seeks to provoke fear.
Horror also evokes the terrifying spectre of the loss of agency, the loss of control. In horror, bad stuff happens, and generally the hapless characters are unable to prevent it. Occasionally, a protagonist may be rewarded for his or her courage, intelligence or integrity, but usually the good and bad alike fall victim to the monster or murderer. In these aspirational days, then, horror is refreshingly unaspirational: this perhaps accounts for its core demographic of teens, pessimists, and loafers like me. Normal, reasonably well-functioning adults, you might think, should have little need for horror; life is precarious enough without having to worry about zombies or swamp monsters. Adolescents and no-hopers, on the other hand, are accustomed to feeling powerless, so the giddy, out-of-control sensation that horror inspires is probably less likely to alarm them.
Another reason for horror’s disreputability may be horror writers’ occasional tendency to pander to the lowest common denominator, to churn out the pulpy rubbish that the literary elite loathe. It has ever been so, since the days when the “penny dreadfuls” were hawked about for the decidedly unedifying entertainment of the masses. But then again, does the suspicion really stand up to scrutiny? Very few people would deny the greatness of Poe, an unashamed horror writer. Besides, horror can take many forms, from the relative subtlety of the ghost story, with its themes of loss, grief and temporal dislocation, to the no-holds barred gore-fest so beloved of teenagers. The ghost story is, indeed, relatively respectable, not least because it has attracted practitioners as skilled as Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, Elizabeth Gaskell and Henry James.
At its best, the ghost story presents us with a satisfying psychological dance between life and death, light and darkness. Can we make peace with the past? Can we live with it, and not be consumed by it? The haunting is often the external manifestation of an internal, psychological state that the haunted is not able to consciously confront; the ghost, for good or ill, forces that confrontation. The haunted house, with its dark corners and echoing corridors, is a physical representation of the tortured mind. Examination of profound and troubling questions is, indeed, a feature of much quality horror. Frankenstein is an enquiry into the nature of existence itself; The Turn of the Screw is a queasy insight into a mind that is on the verge of cracking; The Fall of the House of Usher is a strange ode to dissolution and decay.
Horror is, simply, about being human: about being at the mercy of immensely powerful forces, both internal and external, that we cannot defeat or control; about being, frankly, afraid. A ghost probably won’t creep up on you tonight, but you’ll still be haunted by the need to make your peace with an imperfect past. You’re unlikely to get it in the neck from a vampire, but you’ll nevertheless continue to be threatened by amoral, parasitic predators in their all-too-human form. The world is full of malign and often irrational powers. Horror reminds us of this basic fact, and affords us a thrill not least because it questions our ability to deal with them.
Smashing Pumpkins: some creepy Hallowe’en reads
The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle
Curious, if True, Strange Tales, Elizabeth Gaskell
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
The Shining, Stephen King
Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu
Complete Tales and Poems, Edgar Allen Poe
Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Dracula, Bram Stoker
The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
There’s an old box file in my desk filled entirely with junk. As with so much junk, I’ve a sentimental attachment to it and can’t quite bring myself to throw it away; besides, I can’t help but feel that it might come in handy one day, though it almost certainly won’t. Here I keep all those writing projects that never quite came to fruition. There are short stories that failed to fulfil their early promise, novellas that didn’t quite work out, and stunted novels that never even reached ‘completed first draft’ status.
One of the most notable additions to my junk file is a novel that I worked on for several years, but could never quite complete. It’s a pitiful thing in many ways – unfinished, deeply flawed, laughably ambitious in scope and lamentably amateurish in execution – and yet it remains, in a curious sense, one of the things that I’ve written of which I am most proud. (Not so proud that I’d ever consider publishing it, you’ll be relieved to hear.) It was my first serious attempt at writing a novel, for one thing: I lived with it, and indeed in it, for a long time. I scribbled away at it during lulls in my boring office job. I worked on it during long nights in my grimy, freezing cold, woodlouse-infested bedsit in Cardiff – a place that I also remember with affection, not because it was nice (it was awful), but because it was the first place where I truly lived on my own. I bored my then-boyfriend almost to tears with my endless monologues about it, which is perhaps why that particular relationship was destined to failure.
For a first attempt it was bold – hilariously so, I realise with hindsight. It was set during the English Civil War, and concerned the deeds and misdeeds of an adulterous, depressive alcoholic. (Yes, I really did think that this could work. I was very young.) Together with the effort of writing it came the exertion of researching it, and so alongside the manuscript there
are pages of notes and printed internet pages: maps of London circa 1640, jottings about 17th century medicine and astrology, obscure Biblical quotations, and copies of contemporary ballads and propaganda pamphlets. (To this day, I’m a mine of information about the period. If you ever need to know about the likely contents of a Parliamentarian soldier’s snapsack, or the details of Archbishop Laud’s reforms to Church of England liturgy, I’m your woman.)
Sadly, though, it all came to nothing. The novel never really worked, and eventually just ran out of steam altogether. Today, it’s a curiosity – something I glance at occasionally and fondly, snort with laughter over, and then put away. And yet I’d be loath to call it a failure.
This awkward first attempt taught me more about the craft of writing than almost anything else. It taught me, apart from anything, how incredibly hard it is, and how laughably wide of the mark people are when they talk nonchalantly about ‘writing a novel one day’, as if it were as simple a matter as taking a trip to Cornwall or growing watercress. Lesson Number 1 for aspiring writers is, perhaps, just how tricky writing can be. As Thomas Mann said, ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’ Most planned novels probably never get past the development stage; just finishing what you’ve begun requires hard work, determination, aptitude, and more than a touch of pure mulishness.
The next step – showing your baby to eyes other than your own – requires the hide of a rhinoceros. My Civil War novel was (happily) never widely distributed, but of those who did read it, one or two were really quite scathing about it – with good reason, as I recognise in hindsight. At the time, of course, such a philosophical reaction was impossible. I shrank back into my shell, quietly lamenting my failure, and for a while vowed never to put pen to paper ever again.
Nowadays I’m tougher, but still, the ever-present spectre of failure looms large on the authorial landscape. Your belief in your work may be unshakable, but as to what the wider world will make of it – ah, that’s another matter altogether. And what of those works that even you recognise to be unequivocal letdowns? The ones that got away? Those projects that began with such hope, and died with such pain? They sit at the bottom of your desk drawer, a constant reminder of your limitations and the importance of humility. And yet they are also a token of your evolution, and of the occasionally painful progress from wannabe to gonnabe.
‘All my successes,’ said Benjamin Disraeli, ‘have been built on my failures.’ He might have been talking about politics, but the point is equally valid in relation to writing.
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all the other places in the world.
I’ve never been to the American Deep South, but often, reading The Ballad of the Sad Café, I felt not only like I was there, but as if I had lived there my whole life and knew it intimately. I could hear the locals murmuring together in their Southern twang; I could feel the sticky heat of the long summer days, and hear the chain-gang singing as they worked in the fields. I could also feel it, an atmosphere as rich and profound as it is stifling: the isolation, the poverty, the subdued desire, and the melancholy – all of which make this area, to the outsider at least, so enchanting and unnerving. (Of course, I’m speaking as someone whose knowledge of the Southern States of the USA was gleaned primarily from novels and films, and is therefore at best saturated with cliché, and at worst wildly inaccurate. If anyone who actually knows the place would like to set me straight on any of the above, please feel free…)
It would not be inaccurate to describe this novella as ‘Southern Gothic’, that sub-genre that explores the spiritual longings and loneliness of the South, usually with a variety of odd, poignant and grotesque characters. They don’t get much more grotesque than in The Ballad of the Sad Café. The highly unconventional protagonist, Miss Amelia, is a woman whose very appearance betrays her oddness. She is over six feet tall, and has muscles like a man. She stumps around in swamp boots and overalls. Fiercely independent, she runs a number of business interests in the small Georgia town that is her home, and devotes most of her free time to suing people. She also has an unconventional past: ten years ago, she shocked the townsfolk with a dramatic ten-day marriage to the local bad boy, Marvin Macy.
Now, with Macy long gone (to prison, in fact), Miss Amelia has returned to her proudly self-reliant lifestyle. Then, one day, a strutting little hunchback turns up in town, claiming to be her distant relative. This is Cousin Lymon, who in due course achieves the seemingly impossible by winning Miss Amelia’s affections. Together, they begin to run a small café, which in turn brings something of life and colour to the area. The town itself is in a sense not unlike an enchanted castle in a fairytale: it is asleep, isolated from the remainder of the world, a place of secrets and sorrow. The arrival of Cousin Lymon, and the opening of the café, are the equivalent of the kiss that wakes the place from its slumber. But nothing lasts forever, and one day Miss Amelia’s past begins to catch up with her, in the form of her ex-husband.
Ultimately, this is a book about love. McCullers, in her beautiful, fluid prose, explores the nature of love: its intricacies, its mystery, its betrayals. In every relationship, McCullers suggests, one partner is the lover, the other the beloved. ‘If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me,’ wrote Auden, and this sentiment finds a poignant echo in The Ballad of the Sad Café:
It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being loved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.
Love, McCullers suggests, is not simply, or even primarily, pleasure and passion. It is pain and torture: powerful, inscrutable, and with dim and dangerous depths that nobody can really sound. And just as you begin to get an idea where the love relationships explored in The Ballad of the Sad Café are leading, McCullers turns the tables and springs a surprise on the reader, in a way that makes lines like the above all the more haunting.
In addition to the novella, there are a number of short stories in the collection – The Wunderkind, The Sojourner, A Domestic Dilemma – all of which pack a punch, and perhaps owe much to McCullers’ own tortured life. Despite the success she enjoyed as a writer, her short existence was marred by ill heath and general lucklessness; it is unsurprising, then, that her writing should be saturated with such pain. I’ve only just discovered her writing, and I’m dismayed that it took me so long. This in turn leads me back to one of my great concerns. There are so many fine authors, living and dead, and so many wonderful books to explore: how will I ever find the time to read even a tenth, a fiftieth, a thousandth, of all that I should?
Reviewed by Mari Biella
A member of the Reading Between The Lines collective
For more reviews click here.
Our mini horror writing residency concludes with our horror writer in residence, Mari Biella giving us the low down on Subtle Thrills, Little Spills: Psychological Horror
Yesterday, I talked about the horror of demons and the restless dead, of monsters and murderers. Today, I’d like to talk about another, deeper kind of horror: the horror of alienation and loneliness, of bereavement and despair.