Sunday, 26 February 2012

Notes on the Suburban Gothic – Louis Greenburg

I’ve long been interested in the manifestations of the suburban Gothic in contemporary fiction, art and architecture. At first glance, there seems to be little to connect a grand Gothic cathedral and strip mall or a box house in any Western city’s suburban sprawl, but aesthetically they are on the same continuum.

Nineteenth-century Gothic fiction and the Gothic revival architecture of the same period – follies, faux ruins and mazes – is a reaction against the scientistic certainty of Enlightenment rationality. By setting their Gothic works in crumbling ruins of medieval cathedrals and in ancient castles, Coleridge, the Shelleys, Byron, Poe, the Bront√ęs, Le Fanu and ultimately Stoker celebrate the invincibility of death and he inescapability of history. The bloody shadows of the Crusades cannot be expunged from Europe by Enlightenment politeness; the Gothic celebrates the rejection of scientific rationality and its neat polarities. In the gory darkness of the middle ages, life and death co-existed, good and evil, sex, love and hatred mingled in a heady, human soup that the clever scientists tried to strain. Enlightenment rationalists tried – and failed – to taxonomise the conflicts and contradictions out of human society. The nineteenth century Gothic delighted in showing how death and entropy would always emerge victorious.

Now instead of the impenetrable wisdom of scientists, we rely on governments and corporations, fashion magazines, websites and advertising agencies to classify us, to affirm the effervescence of life and keep death at bay. But just like a hundred years ago, the cracks always show: the ape – everywhere we look – emerges from beneath the human skin, apocalypse seeps from every crack in the thin pavement.

In the 1950s it seemed like it might work. Cars and unprecedented industrial affluence allowed the creation of suburban paradises where right-minded families could live in health and bliss. But soon those suburbs and the nuclear families they harboured behind their discreet walls became the festering-place of abuse and sexual violence. Once they were hidden from the gaze of the broader community, families could practice their evil power imbalances in seclusion.

This is where the suburban Gothic of recent years emerges. Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls is a definitive portrait of abuse and neglected children wandering lost in the suburban wasteland, just as the flawed Gothic heroes – broken, irredeemable and wandering the wasteland, forever in exile – did a century and two before. And who comes to the rescue? To whom do the lost souls run? To vampires, of course (when modern vampires still had teeth) – that ultimate symbol of sex, death, life, pleasure, torment and irresponsibility – they care nothing for human rules. 

Our crumbling cathedrals – the suburban Gothic settings where life and death, love and hate, sex, pain and redemption stew together – are now malls, hospitals and schools; those grandiose edifices where the cant of systemised order and death-defiance is preached. Take a close look at your surgeon, your headmaster, your corporate marketer: they hold your life – and death – in their hands.


Louis Greenberg is a freelance editor and writer in Johannesburg and half of the horror writer S.L. Grey (@slgreyhorror). Their debut collaboration, The Mall, was released in 2011 from Corvus. The Ward comes out in 2012.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Something for the Weekend

The Vesuvius Club – Mark Gatiss

It’s been over a month now and I’m still grieving. None of my colleagues will discuss it with me any more. My partner can’t even bear to hear the music. But my life is empty without the BBC’s Sherlock.

In the absence of more episodes and no resolution on how Mr Holmes faked his death, I’ve turned to Sherlock co-writer Mark Gatiss’ other detective, Lucifer Box, for comfort. There are three adventures featuring the irresistible Box, but The Vesuvius Club is the first and the most fun.

Painter, dandy and secret agent, Lucifer Box romps through Edwardian high and low society whilst saving the world from a ridiculous super-villain plot. There are dangerous pursuits through sewers, amusingly named extras (cute companion Charlie Jackpot is my favourite) and plenty of wisecracking. A detective of dubious moral standards, Box is a witty and decidedly queer hero who will have you sniggering at his antics. A quick, dirty afternoon pleasure best read whilst reclining on a chaise longue, with a box of elaborate chocolates or a willing sidekick to top up your champagne glass. And an excellent way to fill the hours between now and the next season of Sherlock.

Sarah T

Buy it here.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Introducing The Gothic – Jared Shurin

For the next two weeks on Charing Cross Read a series of authors and bloggers will help explain the contemporary significance of the Gothic - all culminating in a darkly fantastic live event at Blackwell’s on 8 March. 

Given the genre’s ubiquity in books, art, film and comics, this seems like an easy task. This isn’t a niche sub-genre like Steampunk - the Gothic has a long shadow that touches every shelf in the bookshop. In fact, the main challenge with the Gothic is the reverse of our normal task. We know the Gothic is significant because it is everywhere, but we don’t know what it is. If we can see it in romance and fantasy, horror and young adult, where do those genres end, and the Gothic itself begin?

I would suggest that the Gothic is less a genre than a meta-genre: a wriggly overlay of themes that have been adapted by each generation to their contemporary situations. Gothic’s own origin stems more from market-savvy literary artifice than organic development, having sprung forth fully-formed from the head of Horace Walpole in 1764. For Walpole, the Gothic was an experiment in blending two forms of pre-existing literature: the chivalric romance and the modern novel. From the former, he nicked epic scale and intimate tragedy. From the latter, he pulled humour and the crowd-pleasing supernatural. Walpole wasn't aiming for the established aristocracy; he was targeting the aspirational middle class. This is even reflected in the title he selected: his work was dubbed "Gothic" in order to give it a sense of history, of cultural weight. 

It’s appropriate, then, that Gothic novels are frequently about the struggle for identity and for place (socially, geographically, emotionally) and the conflict between the old and the new (often represented in terms of class or generation). In the 19th and 20th century, Gothic novels began to discuss race as well, and overseas authors (predominantly in the American South) interpreted those larger themes in terms of their local context. Similarly, side by side with the Young Adult boom of recent years, authors have begun to use the Gothic to examine adolescence as well.

The Gothic is, in a sense, deliberately cheesy: transmogrifying what are ordinarily quiet discussions of class, gender and belonging into something with crumbling towers, angry ghosts and mad wives in attics. The mechanism, then, is to externalise and exaggerate its concerns in order to examine them at arm's length. Inner conflicts become outer ghosts; class issues become vampires, overbearing forebears become collapsing towers and puberty becomes a particularly nasty pack of werewolves.

Aesthetically, the tropes of the Gothic are almost immediately recognisable - cloaks and corsets, towers and vaults, eyeliner and wedding dresses. But the Gothic goes beyond these (slightly hackneyed) elements. In Jerrold E. Hogle's Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, Hogle identifies three general parameters: "an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space", "hidden secrets from the past that haunt the characters" and elision (to a varying degree) between "the earthly laws of conventional reality and the possibilities of the supernatural".

All three are open to broad interpretation. As S.D. Crockett's After the Snow illustrates, for example, the past could be our present, and that our contemporary society can become antiquated history in a few short years. Christopher Fowler's Hell Train and Jon Courtenay Grimwood's The Fallen Blade are both crafted around dangerous secrets - protagonists struggling with their own repressed natures. Both novels depend on antiquated spaces and buried secrets. Fowler’s protagonists sprinting endlessly between the cars of a blasphemous train, confronting their own sins. Grimwood’s characters stalk the alleys and palaces of an alternate Venice, trying to overcome the nature demanded by both their bloodlines and their politics. 

Another modern approach to the Gothic is via supernatual incursion, as with novels by Tanith Lee and Suzanne McLeod. While Lee's body of short stories and novels is so extensive it is impossible to generalise, her work generally tends to include a subtle, deliberately poeticised touch of the supernatural. McLeod's Spellcrackers series also addresses supernatural elements in the real world, but does so more explicitly, with her books focused almost entirely on the integration of the impossible within a contemporary context.

Gothic elements have likewise found a modern expression in the visual arts. The Gothic has been adapted to modern artistic styles (for example, the art of Emma Vieceli or Darren Banks) yet have also stayed true to its original themes (for instance the supernatural glimpsed in the art of John Kaiine and the fading antiquity captured in the photography of Joel Meadows). The great boom of Gothic cinema was, of course, the golden age of Hammer Films in the 1960s and 70s, but the dramatic revival of the Hammer brand and today’s endless parade of vaguely historical and thoroughly supernatural television dramas are both evidence of a new dawn (or is that evening?) of the Gothic in media.

Walpole's experiment has proven to be an unstoppable and uncontrollable force. His literary invention, intended to be populist, has proven timeless as well. 

Over the next few weeks, guest bloggers and authors will go into more detail about what Gothic means to them, from Southern to suburban, teenagers to weather patterns. We hope you also have the opportunity to join us on the evening of 8 March, as we discuss even more interpretations of the Gothic in person at Blackwell's Charing Cross. The evening's guests include many of the authors and artists mentioned above, plus other great figures in horror, fantasy and romance.


Jared Shurin is a director of The Kitschies, the prize for progressive, intelligent and entertaining genre fiction, presented by The Kraken Rum. More about the award can be learned at 

Friday, 17 February 2012

Something for the Weekend

Hello, this week we are spoiling you with two Something's for the weekend! Lucky you.

A visit from the Goon Squad - Jennifer Egan

'Times a goon right? You gonna let that goon push you around?' Inevitably that is exactly what happens to the characters in this beautifully written and subtly moving novel. The circular narrative picks up the characters in different stages of their lives and weaves their stories together to make a hugely satisfying read. Plus a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation, what more could you want?


Buy it here

The little Stranger - Sarah Waters

In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, its owners struggling to keep pace. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. But who or what is the little stranger?
This brilliantly written chiller is definitely the best novel i read in 2010. Everyone will have their own ideas about what has really taken place. Guaranteed to provoke debate.


Friday, 10 February 2012

Something for the Weekend

Wise Children - Angela Carter

Like all of Carter's fiction, Wise Children is brimming with magical realism, fantastical characters and just a hint of the macabre. Twin theatrical sisters Dora and Nora Chance are our leads in a story about chorus girls, questions of paternity, love, tragedy and general familial disharmony. Dora narrates our way through the bright lights of her and Nora's 75th birthday in her light-hearted, sagely tone. The twins' birthday is also the 100th birthday of their father Melchior Hazzard and his twin brother Peregrine; as well as the birthday of Shakespeare, whom Carter admired greatly.

The twins' birthday begins with trademark dramatics when their nephew Tristram calls on them, announcing that his partner Tiffany (the twins' godchild) is pregnant and missing. Soon afterwards, news emerges that a body has been found and it is believed to be Tiffany's. Tiffany and Tristram are an amusing, mismatched couple who bring upon themselves great misfortune. Their story is one of the occasions where Carter appears to be poking fun at their misfortune - with great mischief. As with all of Carter's more tragic characters, nothing too dreadful occurs but there is considerable mishap and the story builds nicely.

Most of the story stems from Dora's memories and regrets of her earlier life. In particular, the subject of paternity is a major occupation for the Chance twins as they are not entirely sure of their parentage until the end of the book. Even then, there is a sense that they will remain rootless and free as they have been all of their lives. As a result, Dora and Nora are two of the more lively and spritely characters of Carter's ouevre. Another element of Wise Children that keeps the readers attention are the names of the characters, i.e Lady Atalanta Hazzard, My Lady Margarine, Peregrine Hazzard, Ross 'Irish' O'Flaherty and the wonderful 'Blond tenor with unmemorable name' all come to mind.

One of the best parts of the book is discovering the seemingly endless melee of identical and fraternal twins in the cast of characters. The sheer volume of characters, coupled with the complexity of their relationships (including incestuous ones) adds to the magical realism that Carter always used so excellently and is still much loved for. If you have a limited imagination - Carter is not for you, or maybe she is, as she could just change your perception of reality and fantasy and the limits of both. Wise Children is an example of just how fine a storyteller Carter really was and should be widely read along with her other titles. Carter's long time friend, Susannah Clapp has recently published A Card From Angela Carter, a collection of postcards from the pairs correspondence that lovingly represents Carter for the mischievous and talented writer she was. We have signed editions (while stocks last!) as Susannah was kind enough to come in and sign for us today. Other titles include The Magic Toyshop, Burning Your Boats and Nights at the Circus.


Friday, 3 February 2012

Something for the weekend..

Kill your friends - John Niven

This 'Something for the weekend...' is not for the faint hearted, this is humour at it's blackest.

It's January 1997 & the times they are a changing, Blair is about to take over, Brit-pop is everywhere & Stephen Stelfox is struggling; except he doesn't know it yet. Stelfox is the 'star' of the book, i wouldn't say hero as a viler man you are less likely to meet. When we meet this nasty piece of work, he is an A&R man in the music business, so he fits in quite well. He despises all the acts that he has to pretend to love & what's worse (for him) is that he's losing any 'touch' he may ever have had (on his first listen to the new Radiohead single 'Paranoid Android' he gleefully declares they have 'lost it' & are 'finished'). Over the next 12 months he will sink lower than he has ever sunk before, taking copious amounts of drugs & alcohol, backstabbing, bitching, attempting murder purely to further his own career, & worse..

And it's hilarious. Each month is prefaced with a short rundown of what Stelfox deems important. This nearly always includes some bluster from another A&R man (e.g. The Ultrasound deal is really heating up - Simon Williams, head of Fierce Panda, says, 'it is clear that this band will be around a lot longer than 18 months..'). It's amusing to look back on who the 'next big thing' were every month ('Headswim' anyone?)

Imagine Patrick Bateman with a sense of humour & you're beginning to get the idea about Stelfox. You laugh though you shouldn't. My favourite piece of bile comes as a back handed compliment for everyones favourite fame hungry red head. Berating another 'needy' indie band he states Geri Halliwell - "would have risen at the crack of dawn every morning for a year and swum naked through a river of shark-infested semen – cutting the throats of children, OAPs and cancer patients and throwing them behind her as she went - just to be allowed to do a sixty-second regional radio interview''.

If that made you laugh - buy the book. You'll find it in store now on our London Novels table.

For similarly caustic (but less murderous) tales of Britpop i would also point you towards Bad vibes by Luke Haines which is just as funny (& true!).

Buy Kill your friends here