Friday, October 10, 2008

The first of many Dublin Detours. Pt 1

Narratives, narration and ambiguity ..all for the new project. Of which more later.

A slight Detour to Dublin first then back to /I/.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula has never been out of print since it was first published in 1897. Its “hero” has apparently appeared in more films than any other literary character. (Favourite vampire film? Herzog’s remake of Nosferatau ). There’s a minor industry about the book itself. How it was written, its literary sources, its possible historical and geographical links, its relationship to the actual vampire folk lore of both Eastern Europe and Ireland, the links between what is known of Stoker’s life and some of the book’s lurid passages.

How many people read the whole book is a different matter. The first four chapters are brilliant, after that Stoker never really deals with the essential narrative problem he’s created for himself. If Dracula is a threat to world peace and civilization as we know it, how come such a bunch of obviously unimpressive “heroes” see him off so easily?
Still, the story escapes its limitations to live in the collective imagination. Which can’t be said for his “ The Lair of the White Worm”, though Ken Russel’s film version is gloriously silly.

However, before Stoker, Ireland was home to one of the greats of the 19th century Ghost story, Sheridan Le Fanu.

I am old enough to remember sleeping in a room which had no convenient light switch. In the dark the house creaked and settled, responding to weather. A wardrobe door opening suddenly, the tree at the bottom of the garden shifted the lights from the next street across the walls and ceiling. In the terraced house voices filtered through the walls, rose from the street outside, tangling themselves in the edges of sleep. All the clichés of the horror film.

Le Fanu wrote ghost stories for an audience who had even less access to the bright antiseptic lights available now in bedside lamps or reading lights. At his best, he plays on the fear of the sounds at the door, the blurred and half glimpsed sight at the window. The tales inhabit an indeterminate world where you’d never be sure if you were in a courtroom in hell or just having a detailed nightmare. No gore. No porn. Just the story worrying at the hinges of your comfortable sense of safety, exploring the half lit space between irrational fear and logic.

His Novel, Uncle Silas is a cumbersome beast, but one I like for a variety of reasons.
The first is the weird sense of déjà vu the intertextuality creates. It’s hard not to make links to the first part of Kidnapped, The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Dickens…. Like the ghosts in his own stories, all these characters and narratives are flitting round the edges of Uncle Silas while you read giving the story a dreamlike quality, an odd familiarity you can’t quite put your finger on.

What distinguishes it from most of the others is the game Le Fanu plays with the narrator. The story is told in first person, and though this means both reader and narrator have access to the same information, the narrator consistently and obviously makes the wrong interpretation of the evidence. It's a subtle way of creating a character. You don’t have to read a plot synopsis to see that Uncle Silas can’t be trusted, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to realise that the narrator is about to be murdered, because she insists on interpreting everything in the best of lights, consistently misreading the signs you may even begin to feel she deserves it.

The same technique plays a major role in Le Fanu’s masterpiece, Carmilla.

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