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STEPHEN VOLK
Gothic


click to enlarge

Grafton, London, 1987
(price: 2.95; 224 pages)


The blurb on the back:

'Conjure up your deepest, darkest fear. Then call that fear. Then call that fear to form...'
They joined hands around the séance table.
The lightning-obsessed Shelley, his timid 19-year-old mistress Mary Godwin, Mary's neurotic half-sister Claire, her lover the Satanic Lord Byron, and his strange companion Dr Polidori.
It began with ghost stories while the storm raged outside - and inside their fevered minds.

GOTHIC

June 16th 1816 at the Villa Diodati. The famous night of inspired imaginations that created monsters.
Or was something
real created that night?
Something born out of electricity and laudanum - formed from their most horrible secrets, congealed in jealousy, obscene lust, guilt and visceral terror.
Some all-powerful creature that vowed revenge on its creators.
Perhaps by morning they would escape the nightmare. If they were all alive by morning. If they were
sane.
'To create a ghost story, what is that?' said Byron. 'But to create a
ghost...'


The British film director Ken Russell is best remembered for his extraordinary, over-the-top TV biographies of composers made in the late-1960s and early-1970s, but he actually enjoyed his finest burst of creativity ten years later with a brace of great movies. First there was Altered States (1980) which gave us William Hurt under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs; and then there was Crimes of Passion (1984) in which Anthony Perkins played a sex-crazed preacher man and Kathleen Turner was a prostitute - in one of her more memorable screen moments, Ms Turner is seen handcuffing a cop to a bed and then anally raping him with his truncheon.

Having thus done drugs and sex (and, of course, rock & roll in Tommy), Russell turned his attention to horror with Gothic in 1986. The setting was the famous ghost-story competition on Lake Geneva in 1817 that produced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and the first appearance of a vampire in English literature, John Polidori's 'The Vampire'. The film is well worth seeing - a fantastic, explosive, absurd concoction that has the lack of restraint and lack of taste that we've come to know and love from Russell - but the book?

Well, I'm not sure. It has the advantage of being written by the screen-writer himself (Stephen Volk) rather than by a hack, but I'm afraid it's not really a very good book. The problem is largely that, while it's told from the perspective of Mary Shelley, the story it tells is far too grotesque and in-your-face to be appropriate for her. The reason why Frankenstein as a book - rather than as an icon - still works is the distancing that Shelley achieves through the odd layered-narrative technique; the horror is not quite real, as though it's seen through a telescope, filtered and kept firmly under control so that it can work through imagination as much as depiction. Volk - perhaps urged on by Russell - abandons such subtlety and goes for the jugular and/or jocular.

That said, the themes addressed by the book and film are of interest, particularly the idea of summoning up horrors from the mind and giving them flesh. It's just that they come over better (and are more fun) in the movie.


ARTISTIC MERIT: 2/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
2/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
1/5


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