‘The Marquis’ by Charles Garvice: ‘incredibly, almost unbelievably, bad’ writing.

220px-Charles_Garvice_-_The_MarquisA few years ago, I posted about having found the worst written novel I have ever come across. This was ‘The Outcast of the Family’ by Charles Garvice, a romantic novel published in 1894.

I had first read it at fifteen, when bored by being snowed in at the Vale of Clwyd in North Wales. My mother had come by this as part of a job lot of Victorian articles in an auction, along with other books, some of rather more value, for instance, she also got a complete set of the first edition of Scott’s ‘Waverley Novels’.

The writing style in this book was so purely terrible that it startled me at the time. I had recently read Sax Rohmer’s ‘The Drums of Fu Machu’ with its flat characters, excessive use of exclamation marks, etc, and this struck me as being even worse.

When I re-read it a few years ago, I found it as fascinatingly bad as I had remembered. The plot, which revolves around a wild young viscount who drinks, brawls and dresses as a costermonger, was so purely risible that I borrowed these details, including his talent for music, for my Gothic satire ‘The Villainous Viscount Or The Curse Of The Venns’.

In ‘The Outcast of the Family’ Lord Fayne is cured of being bad by two conversations with the innocent heroine Eva, who looks upon him and his ‘wasted life ‘ with tenderly compassionate eyes.

Why she does not turn such a gaze upon the villain of the piece, Stannard Marshbank – who is even worse- is not explained. Perhaps it is because he has pale eyes and a furtive manner, unlike Lord Fayne, who is built like a Greek god and with the profile of one, and who saves her life in passing  when, dressed as a tramp, he stops her bolting horse.

Having declared his love for her, Lord Fayne empties his glass of brandy onto the fire, sells his racehorses, discards his costermonger garb and takes up busking on the country roads as a form of rehabilitation. Apparently after a few weeks ‘he feels a change’ inspired by the country air and the company of ‘simple country folk’.

This is only part of the plot, which involves a murder, for which Lord Fayne is unfairly accused, and the seduction of an innocent, for which he is also wrongly  blamed, Lord Fayne’s short career working on a ranch in Uruguay, and his return, ravaged by malaria, to confront Stannard Marshbank – who has meanwhile forced the heroine Eva to agree to marry him – over all his crimes .

When I had read the last page of this melodrama, and stopped laughing, I marvelled at what sort of author could have written such a story in all seriousness.. I investigated Charles Garvice, partly through an article on Wickpedia, and partly through one kindly supplied to me by Laura Sewell Matter, in her delightfully humorous ‘Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist’ (2007). She too, marvelled at his ‘incredibly, almost unbelievably bad’ writing style.

He was the best selling writer of the late Victorian and Edwardian era, writing over 150 books and by 1913 selling over 1.75 million annually.

I have since read several of his other books, and find them all as  lurid, as devoted to purple prose and as full of ludicrous melodrama as his critics asserted. However, none of them to my mind was as appalling as ‘The Outcast of the Family’. I thought that stood alone: but now I have found a rival for it.

‘The Marquis’ was in fact, published by Garvice in 1895, a year after ‘The Outcast of the Family’. That it is about a wild, careless aristocrat who becomes a solid citizen through the love of a virtuous young girl is not surprising, as more or less all of his stories are about that. However, the Marquis , who is decidedly mature for a Garvice hero, being about 35, has taken his wildness to an unusual level, and has lived not only as an outcast, like Lord Fayne, but as an outlaw.

In fact, over in Australia, as ‘Gentleman Jack’ he has been the leader of a group of bushrangers, whom it is hinted he joined not in order to make money – as a marquis he hardly needed to – but to keep from their worst violence. Like Valentine in ‘The Two Gentleman of Verona’, he imposes on them a moral code, and the exploits of Gentleman Jack become well known throughout Australia.

In one of their last raids before he stops being their leader, he calls on the isolated dwelling of Professor Graham who lives with his daughter Constance, who has violet eyes and is ‘as graceful as a fawn’ in a glorified hut in the outback. A near neighbour is a man called Rawson Fenton, instantly recognisable as the villain by his evasive glance and the coldness with which Constance treats him. We may be sure that, like all of Charles Garvice’s villains, he kicks dogs as a hobby.

Professor Graham has bought a piece of land on which there are many precious gems, surrounded by rock. He has been seeking of a way of making money by freeing the jewels of the stone, becoming meanwhile deranged and fanatical about the topic. Unknown to Constance, he finds it – and the success drives him mad – just before the bushrangers arrive on a raid. Naturally, their leader, who seems a ‘superior’ sort of man, arranges for  the grieving Constance to be escorted to the nearest town.  The sneaking Rawson Fenton remains behind. Finding a written copy of the formula, and understanding its meaning, he pockets it. He also finds a ring with a family crest that the lead outlaw has dropped, which he pockets also.

Professor Graham considerately dies some months afterwards. Constance returns to the UK to take up work as a governess. Naturally, Charles Garvice being wholly addicted to improbable co-incidences (or synchronicity, if one wants to judge his use of them generously) she is offered post as governess to the Marquis’ young nephew at Breakspeare Castle in Buckinghamshire. Of course, he returns on the very day she takes up her new post, having wearied both of wandering about the globe and life as an outlaw.

Despite having the Marquis and Constance having met before and not needing glasses, neither recognises the other. To be fair to Constance, she does think, when being shown his portrait earlier by the Marchioness,  that his handsome face, with its ‘audacity and recklnessness, an air of ‘devilry’ and wildness’ is familiar. But she has no idea from where.

Naturally, they fall in love. But a sly cousin who stays at the house, Lady Ruth, has her own plans for the Marquis – who incidentally is called the astounding name of Wolf Breakspeare – and joins forces with Rawson Fenton, now returned to the UK to foil matters.  Soon, one of Gentleman Jack’s old gang members named Long Ned turns up, too, singularly hard up – but unlike Constance, capable of recognising the Marquis as Gentleman Jack — and given to saying such things as ‘Lor bless you, guv’nor.’ Will he descend to blackmail?

There is a good deal more in the way of a plot, but it really is too ridiculous to repeat, save to say that Rawson Fenton finds out the Marquis’ dark secret and blackmails Constrance into agreeing to accept his proposal.

During the course of the 350 odd pages, Constance ‘reddens and then turns pale’ on more or less on every other one; Ruth constantly looks and speaks sharply; the Marquis is repeatedly masterful and sometimes a dark look passes across his handsome face as he regrets his past ; Rawson Fenton’s face writhes with passion; everyone admires both Constance (save Lady Ruth)  and the Marquis (save Rawson Fenton), and the Marchioness constantly ‘speaks placidly’.

This book also contains a cringe making love declaration, in which I reproduce the punctuation exactly :

‘But for you I should have dared that man (Long Ned) to do his worst! But for you, I should have left this house never to return! But I could not –Girl” his hand clutched as if in a wild rage at some weakness that mastered him – “girl, what have you done to me? Ever since I saw you, the night that I returned, you have exerted an influence over me. You have robbed me of my strength of will, the strength I gloried in – the strength which, once gone, renders me weak and helpless! Constance” and he used her hand to draw her to him, “what have you done to me? What is it? Constance, I cannot get you out of my thoughts day and night. Is it that I love you?”

Oh dear: purple prose, anybody? This book truly has to take equal first place with ‘The Outcast of the Family’ as the worst that I have ever read.

Fascinatingly, the hard backed copy that I read, which was  a cheap book in the days before paperbacks, has been so well bound, using the old sewing methods, that it has held this dreadful piece of writing together for 124 years.





Review of ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ A Free Ghost Story by Mari Biella

This is actually an image from the winter of 1962,
but Mari Biella’s ghost story gave me the sme sort of feeling.


Happy New Year to all readers.

Over Christmas, I enjoyed reading a few more ghost stories, including one by Mari Biella, available for download here.

Here is my review.

This is a gripping Christmas ghost story; I expected it to be well written, obviously. One tends to take that for granted with this author – the day Mari Biella starts writing about cardboard characters or sprinkling their  dialogue with exclamation marks is the day I start to offer guests marmite sandwiches for dinner.

It is first of all, very atmospheric, the first requirement of a ghost story, and I think particularly a Christmas ghost story. We want a comfortable shiver as we read, perhaps sipping a glass of  something festive and alcoholic, and wriggling our toes by the fire.

Here, we get that at once:

 ‘Maynings, the house was called: a large and rather gloomy building that dated from the middle of the last century. It looked proud but also somewhat forlorn as I approached it that dim winter afternoon… It was oppressive, too: I felt a deepening sense of gloom creeping over me as I walked along the overgrown drive. That could, however, have been due to nothing more than the dimming light and the loneliness of the spot.’

Set early in the twentieth century, this story revolves around the Christmas visit of Charlson, the protagonist, to a deserted house belonging to the family of his only friend at university, Atherton. Atherton, who comes from a far more affluent background than Charlson, has suggested that as he has declined an invitation to spend Christmas with Atherton’s family, he might like to spend it there instead.

Charlson, who is convalescent after a bad bout of ‘flu, and who wants to catch up with his studies, is happy enough to accept the invitation to spend his Christmas there. He is an orphan, and has no relatives with whom to spend Christmas. He doesn’t want to be an object of pity to Atherton’s relatives, and sees himself as something of a natural recluse, prickly and gruff.

Inside the house is substantial, but pervaded with melancholy. Charlson comes to learn that Atherton’s great-aunt Airington lived there. He sees a faded sepia portrait of her in the room where he decides to set up quarters, a seemingly stern and conventional looking woman.

Charlson begins to hear noises that he should not, and discovers that one of the attic rooms still has a barred window. He begins to feel unwell again, shivery and feverish, and though he had intended to spend the holidays studying, he finds it a great effort to concentrate on them.

Then, from the local station master, Charlson learns that the house was rumoured to have a grim secret…

I won’t write a spoiler and reveal any more of the plot, save to quote to paragraphs which I particularly admired:

‘My voice sounded weak, cracked. It elicited no reply, other than a sudden explosion of rooks from the trees. They burst into the pallid winter sky, and their cries and the beating of their wings filled the air.’

‘The snow glittered, reflecting the moonlight back at the sky, and stars pricked the mantle of heaven. Something moved on the edge of the lawn, near where the trees stood in a protective circle. I caught my breath, and then watched with mounting horror as something emerged from the woods and began to lurch across the lawn…’

Tersely written, and full of elegant word pictures and a mounting atmosphere of fear, ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear’ is a short but powerfully written gem of a story.

Here is the link Here is the link


Émile Zola’s series on ‘Les Rougon-Macquart’: a Fascinating Exploration of Excess in France of the Second Empire.


I remember I was nineteen when I began reading books by Émile Zola (1840-1902). Nana was the first, which I came on by accident.

My sister had a paperback copy from somewhere, and admiring the cover – a lovely nude by Renoir – I began reading the blurb, and then the novel. Nana (1880) is a lurid, and highly improbable, account of the career of the rise to fame, or anyway, notoriety, of a vulgar courtesan and talentless actress.

Reading in the forward that Nana is the daughter of the main couple in the earlier novel L’Assommoir and that this was just one of a whole series of Les RougonMacquart which Zola had written, and fascinated by its lurid account appeal, I read many more of the books.

I want to emphasize that while the titles are French – largely because they don’t translate well into English – my own French isn’t up to reading anything more than the simplest novel, and I read them all in the English translations.

Wickipedia puts Zola’s literary framework in creating this series so well that I’ll b e lazy and quote wholesale: –

More than half of Zola’s novels were part of a set of 20 collectively known as Les Rougon-Macquart. Unlike Balzac, who in the midst of his literary career resynthesized his work into La Comédie Humaine, Zola from the start, at the age of 28, had thought of the complete layout of the series. Set in France’s Second Empire, the series traces the “environmental” influences of violence, alcohol, and prostitution which became more prevalent during the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. The series examines two branches of a family—the respectable (that is, legitimate) Rougons and the disreputable (illegitimate) Macquarts—for five generations.

The series is not only an exploration of Zola’s ideas about how hereditary and environment interacted to shape an individual’s fate, but a condemnation of the empty decadence of the French Second Republic (1852-1870). Convinced that drunkenness and insanity were an hereditary taint which would go on for generations, he depicted his Macquarts as having their lives shaped by this as much as their environments.


I was both fascinated and repelled by the books. They contain brilliantly strong writing, with vivid, inspired passages combined with frankly purple prose. There are often scenes of wonderfully bawdy humour which appalled Victorians.

They obviously lose a lot in translation; for instance, L’Assommoir is one of the novels written in the slangy French of the working people of Zola’s day, and English translations can read as stilted.

Among other criticisms, I disliked Zola’s attitude towards women (comparatively liberal towards women though it was for his age), and thought his view of ‘human nature’ warped. There is indeed, little balance in his depiction of characters. In his work, people are largely selfish opportunists, almost monstrous depictions of base passions,  fools, or selfless martyrs who might be dubbed lay  saints. There are few of the people who in most people’s experience form the majority of mankind in our current state – those in between these extremes.

For all his cynicism about human nature, Zola was politically to the left; while he took an alarmist and unfairly biased view against the uprising which led to the Paris Commune of 1871, his sympathies are generally with the exploited working people of his era.

However, unlike Dickens, his portrayal of the oppressed was never sentimental and asexual. Intriguingly for a pre-Freduian writer, he wholly acknowledged the massive power of both the sex drives and the death drives in the psyche.

In fact, when late Victorian Britons mentioned ‘French novels’ in tones of horror as to be kept from sheltered young maidens at all costs, I suppose they must have had Zola in mind. When in 1888, a publisher  Henry Richard Vizetelly, brought out La Terre in English, the sexual and violent themes led to his being charged with obscentiy.

At the time when I was reading these, the first novel of the series, La Fortune des Rougon, written in 1871, which starts off the cycle, was out of print. In fact, I can’t imagine why I didn’t try and get a copy from the British Library. I had to pick up the relations between the vast cast of characters as I went along. However, all of these novels can basically be read as ‘stand alone’ novels, being fairly self-contained in theme.

Zola deals with various aspects of the corrupt France of the era ending in the Franco Prussian war of 1870-1871, and its immediate aftermath. He travelled about and did exhaustive research.

Son Excellence Eugène Rougon (1876) is about high political skullduggery and the close associates of Napoleon III. The unscrupulous, cold Eugène Rougon, a son of the legitimate and ostensibly bourgeois and respectable branch of the family, is obsessed by obtaining high political power and was active in making Napoleon III Emperor in the coup of 1851. Temporarily out of favour with his master, his fall takes down his group of opportunist supporters.

Zola describes the ‘hereditary taint’ of addictive behaviours from his grandmother, which comes out in Rougon as a form of monomania, tellingly: –
‘With him it was love of power for sheer power’s sake, a love, what is more, untrammelled by any craving for personal glory or wealth or honours. Shockingly ignorant and terribly mediocre in all but the management of other men, it was only by his need to dominate others that he really rose to any height. He loved the mere effort of it, and worshipped his own ability.’

Rougon falls too for the voluptuous and attractive Clorinde Balbi, who helps him regain political influence. After the assassination attempt of 1858, he is made Minister of the Interior, with powers to maintain ‘peace and security’ at any cost. He rewards his long time supporters. Now, however, he refuses to marry Clorinde as a move not furthering his political ambitions. Instead, he arranges passionless marriages of convenience for both of them.

In a pivotal part of the plot, the generally icily controlled Rougon, overcome with lust, tries to force himself on her. She snatches a whip and keeps him off by cutting at him with it, maddening him further. In a romantic novel, this would be the turnaround part of the plot where the hero is won over by the heroine’s spirit, spurring him on finally to propose, but in this less romantic tale, Clorinde gives herself instead to the Emperor, who promotes her husband.

Meanwhile, Rougon has lost the support of his followers, who decide that he failed to reward them sufficiently for their support, though in fact, he granted their original requests, and is finally tricked into resigning from his all powerful post.

La Ventre de Paris (1873) deals with the area about the great Paris market Les Halles, and recounts with the fate of Florent, an escaped political prisoner mistakenly arrested in 1851, who comes to live with his brother Quenu and his unimaginative, status obsessed wife, Lisa – who is a sister of Jean Macquart from La Terre. He begins on an impractical and idealistic scheme to plan an uprising, much to the disapproval of his sister-in-law.

She eventually betrays him to the authorities, only to find out that half her neighbours have beaten her to it. One of her relatives, Claude Lantier, later to feature in the art world of the era in L’œuvre, provides an objective commentary on the actions of the characters. After Florent is arrested, he comments with disgust words to the effect of: ‘How abominable respectable people are!” I believe that was the last sentence in the novel.

L’Assommoir (1877) depicts the life of Gervaise Macquart, also a siser of Jean, who having run away from their native Provence with her heartless, handsome lover Lantier, now lives in Montmartre, then a poor area of Paris. Lantier abandons her with two small sons (one, Jacques, has been left in Provence). However, the roofer Coupeau falls in love with her, they marry and she is able to open her own laundry.

To bring about Gervaise’s downfall into alcoholism and living in a sordid threesome with Coupeau and the returned Lantier, Zola has to make the kind hearted and hard working Coupeau have a complete personality change after he breaks his leg falling from a roof. He becomes a layabout, takes to drink and when he hears of Lantier’s return to the area, is won over by him into accepting him as a ‘lodger’ who never pays his rent.

All this is improbable, given Coupeau’s original character as a open hearted working man, and while Gervaise is assumed by Zola to have an hereditary weakness for drunkenness – which is somehow supposed to be reflected in her having been born with a limp – Coupeau has no such hereditary.

Gervaise has to support both men and their daughter Nana, her three sons, Claude, Jacques and Étienne Lantier having now grown up (they are the subsequent protagonists of L’œuvre (1886), La Bête humaine (1890) and Germinal (1885) ).

Finally ,when Coupeau becomes abusive, her daughter Nana runs away to become a street walker and Lantier deserts Gervaise for a more prosperous rival , Gervaise takes to drink herself, and sinks into total degradation.

La Terre (1887) deals with the peasants, who it seems were generally idealised by the French in this era. In Zola’s sensationalist account of the grasping nature of the residents of a singularly godless village in the Beauce, where the residents are too mean to keep a priest, this illusion was stripped away. Promiscuity, brutality, incest, rape and murder all feature.

One of the main components of the plot consists of the story of the old farmer Fuon, who through living too long when dependant on his offspring, suffers a peasant’s version of the fate of King Lear. The story features Zola’s most appalling villain, Butteau, and one of his nicest heroines, Françoise. The protagonist is in fact, a wholly reasonable, balanced and well meaning member of the Macquart’s, Jean, who seems to have inherited none of the ‘hereditary taint’ of mental imbalance which Zola depicts in the other family members.

La Bête humaine (1890) is a sort of psychological thriller based about the Le Havre to Paris railway. Jacques Lantier, an engine driver, has all his life had a sexual longing to murder women. He controls this, however, partly through his almost sexual relationship with his engine, La Lison. When by chance he catches a glimpse of the station master Roubaud murdering one of the railway directors (having discovered that he had previously been his wife’s lover), Lantier keeps quiet because Roubaud’s wife buys his silence by starting a love affair with him.

Because of her connection with a murder, Lantier finds that at first he can control his desire to kill a woman as part of the sexual act with Séverine, but later it comes back and he kills her. In the last scene, hostility between Lantier and his fireman flares into bloodlust and they fall off the engine in a deathly embrace. The driverless train hurtles on through the night, full of happy, singing, drunken recruits for the war with Prussia. It is a symbol of the fate of France.

These are just a few of the novels from this series which I read, the ones which interested me most. Germinal, Zola’s masterpiece, deserves a separate blog post.

The one which I thoroughly disliked is Le Docteur Pascal. This depicts the work of the eponymous doctor, the grandson of the original source of all the family malaise, Adelaide Forque, through her Rougon marriage. He has invented a serum that he hopes will cure mental and hereditary diseases. He has kept a chart of the lives of the thirty descendants of Adelaide Forque, and made a lifelong study of hereditary and madness. He lives with his mother and niece, Clothilde.

Gradually, he wins his niece over to his views and also to his atheism (Zola was a passionate atheist). Finally, and this is the bit that will probably disgust many people as much as it did me – the sixty-year-old uncle becomes his young niece’s lover. No mention was made of incest in the novel, and I was startled to learn that a relationship between an uncle and a niece was not regarded as incest in France.

Eventually, the couple conceive a baby, but Pascal dies of a heart attack before the birth. His mother destroys his documentary evidence of genetic mental illness as exemplified in his family history records, and Clothilde is left nursing the baby, the hope of the future for the family, as are Jean Macquart’s children by his second marriage.

This is the last of the novels in the series. Zola had now taken a younger mistress, who had two children by him. His depiction of the downright creepy relationship between the aging doctor and his nubile niece is permeated by Zola’s own atttitude towards his relationship with this very young woman.  One also supposes he felt a need to justify his actions, to himself, at least. He also seems to have believed in some way that the birth of two children regularised it.  His wife maintained, when she found out, that she could have given him children herself. If he refused to let her have any, only to have a family with a younger woman, then that was callous indeed. No wonder she was outraged.

It is impossible to do justice to this complex and varying series in one blog post, but certainly, Zola was an original and exceptionally talented writer who often rose to greatness. If the modern reader only feels that she has time to read one of his novels, I would urge her to make that one Germinal – his epic depiction of the conditions in the mining community in the mid nineteenth century, and the terrible consequences of a failed strike by the miners.

But more on that, in my next post…


An Original, Witty and Spine Chilling Fantasy: Review of ‘Reqium for a Forgotten Path’ by Robert Wingfield

These last couple of weeks I’ve been enjoying reading an excellent fantasy with a strong, independent minded heroine. This is ‘Requim for a Forgotten Path’ by Robert Wingfield.

This is a funny, spine chilling, evocative continuation of the adventures of Ankerita, the eponymous heroine of the first in this series.

I really like this heroine. She is brave, determined, resourceful, loyal, generous, and – decidedly bossy. After all, she’s been around for five hundred years, has been a murderer (of her abusive husband) cursed, drugged, buried alive,become the thief of someone else’s body, then befriended, enslaved, idolised, exploited, and relentlessly hunted down by the sinister Fantasia and her company of thugs . People who have been about for a few decades must seem novices at life to her.

If this young woman ended up as a beaten wife in the early sixteenth century, as we know she did from volume one, then there would have been no hope for the rest of us…

The tale is fast moving and runs smoothly, through every sort of adventure, mundane and arcarne. The writing is full of vivid word pictures but – and this isn’t the contradiction it might appear to be – I was particularly drawn in by the concise, matter-of- fact style. I think, like me, many people will find themselves fully believing in these wild, Gothic adventures through different dimensions and time. Through this combination of humour and readable but sophisticated approach, I really was drawn in and carried along by the tale.

Besides this, I was kept grinning broadly and sometimes laughing out loud by the humour. This is a compliment from me, because often I can read a whole comedy book, and only smile.

The plot took a lot of unexpected twists and turns, and this was an unusual treat for me, because I do find a lot of conventional fiction rather predictable, especially in the way it depicts relationships,and those between men and women in particular. Here, you really don’t know what is going to happen.

Finally, some quotes:

””Farewell, my beautiful darling,” he said sadly, and placed a kiss on her cold lips. “If only..”
The eyes flicked open as he lingered. “If only what, thou odiferous shardborne piglet?”Her cold hand lashed out, and hit him firmly across the

“It’s a parking ticket. You have to like pay a fine.”
“Ah,” said Ankarita,”A pox upon that…”

”The journey became an ordeal. The old man gave off a dim glow which led them down a labyrinth of passages. Jo tried to continue marking,
the walls as they continued to keep up, but the old man was moving too swiftly. They went up sloping passages and down spiral stairways and along twisting tunnels. There were many branches that showed up n the glow of the old man’s ghost light, too many even to try to remember a route. There would be no going back…’

A great read and recommended for all who like a strong, independent heroine and an original, spine chilling and witty fantasy.

Available from Amazon Com –


and from amazon.co.uk on



When the Ghostly Meets the Absurd

mrx%2BnecronomiconSome months ago, I wrote a post about the thin line between horror and comedy; and on how one can so often lead into the other. It can be so difficult to get the balance right. After all, at times even the masters of terror, like Stephen King and Bram Stocker, can mistakenly stray over into the ludicrous.

That is one comfort about writing spoof Gothic. Here, the relationship between the two is out in the open. If the reader laughs a bit where the writer is aiming for pure terror, or is appalled by a bit which on the contrary is intended as one of the comic episodes, then it really doesn’t matter.

I mentioned in that post, how I let out a hoot of laughter when reading one of HP Lovecraft’s short stories, which unluckily, was not meant to be comic at all.

In it, a monster, born of an unnatural mating between a creature from outer space and a woman, was trying to obtain a copy of ‘The Necromican’, apparently so that the other members of the race to which his father belonged could come to earth. Well, it’s nice that he was a fond son, anyway…

There being no Internet and no Amazon in those days, and seemingly no public libraries willing to loan a copy of this book of magical rites (even if he had to read it in the reading room, as in the British Library), he broke into a private library to steal a copy.

Here, a watchdog attacked him, tearing his trousers and revealing that his body below the waist was ‘the stuff of fantasy’ (and certainly not of the sort found in the ‘Romance/Erotia’ section in Amazon, either).

The unlucky miscreant soon began to melt into a pool of goo. I was worried that the dog might have been poisoned by tearing at his flesh, but we didn’t hear that it suffered any ill effects.

There was another, which involved a man whose body had been stolen by these same aliens, and who came back to life in the coffin of one of their dead human accomplices (I forget why). He somehow got out, and made a series of warning phone calls, but as his vocal cords had begun to disintegrate, the recipients only heard, ‘Obscene gurgling noises’. Again, I collapsed into laughter. 51qDfwesoBL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-v3-big,TopRight,0,-55_SX324_SY324_PIkin4,BottomRight,1,22_AA300_SH20_OU02_

It’s decades since I read those short stories, and I can’t, unfortunately, remember the names, though I do remember I read them as part of an anthology of possibly, ‘The Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories’ or ‘Tales of Terror’ or some such thing. When I’ve mentioned them, people have been eager to read them too, so that’s a shame (that’s the annoying thing about short stories, they are so hard to track down).

Recently, however, I read the most absurd ghost story I have yet read, and I am sorry to say that it was chosen for ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’. I do remember the title of this. ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ by one Margery Lawrence.

This choice is the more extraordinary, as I gather that this largely forgotten writer was fully capable of writing genuine tales of terror. I can’t imagine what made the editor choose this, apart from the fact that it does stray repeatedly over into the ludicrous, and this, seemingly, by accident.

I did wonder if it is meant as a spoof, though this is not mentioned in the write up. Rather, I think, the combination of the dated, class-based assumptions of the characters, and their strangely cardboard nature, combine with a not sufficiently alarming ghostly presence to make for an unintentional comic effect.

By contrast, ‘Juggarnaut’ in the same volume, by D K Broster, a tale about a haunted ‘bath chair’, written about the same time (1926) with the same dated assumptions, is clearly meant to be ludicrous as well as horrific, and is highly entertaining.

The Haunted Saucepan’ comes from a book of collected stories by the author called ‘Nights of the Round Table’. In it, the hero, Conner, is an engineer come back to the UK along with his devoted manservant who is positively grovelling in his subservience towards the hero – and called the incongruous name of Strutt ; Conner is looking for affordable accommodation in Mayfair, near St James Park. 300px-Savile_Club_New_Bar_2

Unable to find any, he fears – horrors – that he would be reduced to living in a hotel, or else, his club (it isn’t clear where he would have placed Strutt; presumably in the attics) . This is hardship indeed, as he says he needs to live near his business interests. Then he comes on a fully furnished flat to let at a startlingly low rent. The agent tells Connor that the owner is abroad, having left abruptly for unspecified reasons.

The devoted Strutt has even been approached by a cook, an elderly woman who turns up, offering her services. He says to his master, ‘I took the liberty of exercising my own judgement…I hope I did right, Sir?’

The woman is an excellent cook. After his first dinner, Connor concedes; ‘Tell her I’m pleased.’ (What, no tip? Well, you mustn’t indulge staff too much; they’re bound to take advantage.)

Naturally, we have guessed at once that the flat is haunted. The mystery is in what form this haunting is going to take. The object of terror is in fact, a saucepan, which bubbles in a sinister way when the stove isn’t alight. Not only that, but if anyone eats anything cooked in it, he or she suffers from terrible agonies. This happens to Connor, after the delightful meal, for Strutt heated him some coffee in that saucepan.b732a28730f411f534c740cb1564b6ed

Connor, reading late on that first night, finds that Strutt has failed to supply him with fresh soda for the siphon, and he has to go along to the kitchen to get it. Here on the stove:
‘One, a little saucepan, had it’s lid not quite on – not fitted on levelly, I mean –and it had the oddest look for a moment, just as if it had cocked its lid up to take a sly look at me!’

Later in the night, Connor awakes: ‘Shaking and gasping, my hands alternately grasping my throat and stomach as most awful griping agonies seized me, throwing me into convulsive writhings…’

Strutt to the rescue: ‘My God, Sir, what’s the matter? You waked me coughing! Wait a second, Sir, I’ll get you a drop of brandy…If you’ll take my advice you’ll change those damp things and let me rub you down…’

The next day Connor feels fine, and his doctor says there’s nothing wrong with him.

But then, Connor is dismayed when he and his friend Trevanion, who’s come to dine, hear an odd bubbling noise coming from the kitchen, but a visit their reveals nothing:

‘Trevanion’s cheery laugh died away down the street…The kitchen door stood ajar…craning forward, I peeped round the door…The little saucepan stood where I had put it, on the stove, still cold and unlit – but it was boiling! The lid was rakishly aslant, and tilted a shade every second or so as the liquid, whatever it was, bubbled inside, and gusts of steam came out as I gasped, dumbfounded –somehow as I listened, the noise of the bubbling shaped itself into a devilish little song, almost as if the thing was singing to itself, secretly and abominably, chortling to itself in a disgusting sort of hidden way….’b732a28730f411f534c740cb1564b6ed

This was the point at which I began to chortle to myself in a disgusting sort of hidden way at Connor and Strutt’s terrors, and the general Boys’ Own way in which the hero and his friend Trevanian set out to resolve the mystery.

The servile Strutt taken ill, too, after boiling himself an egg in the murderous saucepan (Connor is so astonished that his man is late wth his early morning tea that he goes to investigate). Now, Trevanian callously decides to engage in some animal experiments. He borrows a dog, boils up some bones in the pan, and gives them to the unfortunate animal, which is seized by the symptoms of poison also:
‘Poor old brute! Never mind; he’ll be all right in a jiff.”

Then, the two friends decide to wait in the kitchen –along with the unlucky dog – in an attempt, it seems, to see the ghost:
‘We had brought cushions and rugs with us, and threw them in a corner, the furthest away from the stove…from where we could watch both door – and stove – and saucepan…Settling ourselves down, I rummaged in my pocket for my pipe.’

SaucepansAtWW30sI’ve read a number of descriptions of such night vigils in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but Conan Doyle can make the situation full of alarming suspense rather than absurdity. He achieves this in ‘The Speckled Band’, for all the baboon which runs across the garden, and the cheetah that snuffles at the window.

With this story, by contrast, I began to snigger heartlessly again. Then I came to the climax of the vigil: –
‘A faint movement in the passage at the further end – on tiptoe for greater stealth, something stole towards the kitchen door…the Thing in the passage trailed nearer and nearer…a faint footstep accompanied by a soft rustle like a trailing skirt. At this moment, I became aware of another phenomenon –there grew a heavy scent on the air, like patchouli, I think…our throats dry with fright, we shrank closer to each other, staring at the dog as he moaned and whimpered, and the steps drew nearer, and paused outside the kitchen door, as if Whoever walked that night paused to peer at us through the crack in the kitchen door, and laughed at us through the chink!
‘For sheer terror, that beat all that I have ever known, yet still the spell held us both motionless…the dog’s eyes fixed about five foot from the floor, followed – Someone – who entered…suddenly upon the silence broke a sinister little sound – the clink of a saucepan lid lifted…with a yell of mortal fear I threw aside the rugs, and bolted past that horrible stove like a maniac, Trevanion close at my heels, blundering madly over poor old Ben as he ran.’
At this, I laughed so much that I thought the story deserved a place in the collection for its sheer entertainment value. If it was written tongue in cheek, which I doubt, as it seems the author had little sense of the ridiculous, it is a masterpiece of understated satire.
None of the comedy of these two he man types running in terror from the apparition of a living and lovely young woman is indicated as the story draws to  a close (for the siren murderer who owns the flat and who killed her husband with poisoned meals from the saucepan still lives abroad with her male accomplice).

Connor and Trevanion take Strutt into their confidence. He is all gratitude, and says he threw the dread saucepan out, but it turned up in the kitchen again. On no account is his beloved master to touch it.

The cook is called. Trevanion seizes her, and Strutt, rather like a school sneak, informs them that she laughed when Connor was taken ill, and threatens to make her eat something cooked out of the saucepan.

After this ungallant treatment, she crumbles and tells all of her former mistress, her lovers, and the elderly husband subject to painful attacks of acid indigestion , and the wife carefully cooking him invalid’s meals in the dread saucepan, laced with a strange white powder from her doctor lover. For all this deviotion, he faded slowly away. Then the doctor married the siren and they went abroad…

After that, the wicked old woman used the saucepan now and then to scare away tenants, as she wished to keep her caretaking job (it’s never explained why, with her skills as a chef, she didn’t take up work as a cook; but perhaps it was harder work). Connor sternly dismisses her:
‘The door closed on her dismissed figure, and Trevenion’s eyes met mine. With one accord we said, ‘My God, what a horrible yarn!’ That is redolent of Rinaldo Rinaldini, where his men are forever speaking in chorus.

It is left to Strutt to throw away the saucepan. The environmentally unfriendly Connor suggests he tie a stone to it, and sinks it in the Thames (but might it not poison the whole river?)

I was disappointed to come to the end of the tale; it had given me a wonderful laugh.41h7eo8lA4L._SS160_

I hasten to add that there are far more spine chilling ghost stories in ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’ – ‘Miss de Mannering of Asham’ by F M Mayor, for instance, is brilliant and touching, and ‘The Eyes’ by Edith Wharton is truly alarming, and has a wonderful psychological slant that in no way detracts from the ghostliness.

It is also only fair to add, that I lived in a reputedly haunted house myself for several years, and I found listening to the sound of disembodied footsteps decidedly unpleasant myself (though their owner was almost certainly dead). I also found the inexplicable mechanical clicking noises which passed up one of the long corridors at dead of night disturbing, neither of which sounds frightening when recounted in the light of day (though I often heard them in the light of day, though more often at twilight, including the last time that I heard them, about which I will write next Halloween).

The problem, then, is less with the prosaic nature of a ghostly saucepan than the whole Boy’s Own Adventure Story atmosphere which surrounds this 1920’s ghostly tale. However, as laughter is the best tonic, I strongly recommend it.

Review of Samual Richardson’s Clarissa

imagesclarissaI finally finished ‘Clarissa’ a couple of weeks ago.
It’s an incredibly long read, and sometimes a tedious one. Richardson never writes fifty words when five hundred will do,and he just loved to tell not show.

His moral expostulations that so amused Coleridge are even more in evidence here than in Pamela: the moral conflict between Lovelace and Clarissa has more at stake than the one between Mr B and Pamela, because finally Lovelace is shown to be too wicked to be capable of reformation.

In Richardson’s earlier novel, Mr B does, after his outrageous attempts on Pamela in the first half of the story, have an –  unconvincing –  moral turnabout and offers Pamela the marriage which, it seems, makes all these earlier, shabby attempts on a servant’s maid’s body all right.

To be fair to Richardson, Mr B supposedly clears himself of charges of attempted rape in ‘Pamela in Her Exalted Condition’ (one of the dullest books I have ever read), explaining away his dramatic leaps from cupboards and pinning her down with the help of the brutal Mrs Jewkes as apparent misunderstandings (!!!). Mr B, though debauched enough to be a seducer, is not finally to be seen as a rapist.


Lovelace was almost certainly a rapist before he ravishes the drugged Clarissa – (an act he blames on the prostitutes in the brothel, two of them girls he has debauched himself). We hear of his abducting a woman he admired before, and when he got her to the inn, as he blithely admits to his tool Joseph Leman, ‘It’s true I didn’t ask her for her permission. It’s cruel to ask a virtuous woman’.

He schemes to kidnap and rape Clarissa’s friend, his opponent Anna Howe, in a maritme raid in which he hopes to include his group of fellow debauchees, but this idea comes to nothing as his obsession with Clarissa leads to her own desctruction at his hands.

He also casually suggests drowning a treacherous mistress of his dying friend Belton, along with the two boys of doubtful paternity (it’s hard to tell from the context if he is serious or not).

The style of this shameless brute is throughout lively and amusing enough sometimes to beguile the reader almost into warming to him at times – until you remember his disgusting history of abuse of  women based solely on one disappointment in love, and an apparent conviction (shared with Richardson) that a woman’s ‘chastity’ is her only honour. He is a great believer in the rakes’ code that the only women worthy of respect are the ones who will reject his advances.


We see him being charming to his cousin Charlotte, winning her over with kisses, and entertaining his rakish friends. We see him scheming diabolically, excusing himself inadequately, and finally, being destroyed by Clarissa’s avenger Colonel Morden. His final words during his death throes are ‘Let this expiate!’ Presumably, this is addessed to Clarissa herself. What can expiate his behaviour to his other victims, and those he has made into brutes themselves, isn’t a question Richardson addresses.

His scheming is sometimes ludicrous – for instance, wishing to test Clarissa’s feelings for him, he doses himself with the emetic ipecacuanha, then sends out for blood from the butchers to mix with his vomit to convince Clarissa that he is dangerously ill ( of course, she is duly compassionate).


Lovelace can’t explain away his diabolical machinations when Clarissa comes to believe in them. The reader has access to them from the beginning through his detailed correspondence with his friend Belford, who later goes over to the Clarissa camp and lets her see his friend’s letters, thereby exposing the full extent of his pointless and elaborate schemes against her virtue.

I don’t believe anyone – even at the time – could possibly really have thought of this novel as true to life. There are domestic details which are, obviously, for Richardson, ever a vivid and lively writer when not launched on a moral homily, can bring his imaginative world to life admirably. His depictions of life in great houses, in a brothel and in eighteenth century shop, are colourful and interesting. Still, his story is in no way believable and most of his characters and their relationships are improbable, whether they are virtuous or debauched.

Clarissa is an impossible seventeen year old ( the more extraordinary as she ages two years in eight months and is nineteen at the time of her death). She is always virtuous and dutiful.

She does appear to give way, very early in the novel, to one fit of spite when she describes her sister Bella as having ‘a high fed face’ but even this may be a fault in his ‘epistolary method’. This remark is more suited to the acid pen of Anna Howe than that of the high-minded Clarissa. Her purity is such that nothing can soil even to her ruffles – these remain unsoiled in the grubby ‘spunging house’.

I don’t wish to give the impression that I in any way am decrying Richardson’s  achievement as a man who wished, in portraying the conflict between a virtuous woman and a rake, to warn ‘the inconsiderate and thoughtless of the one sex against the base arts and designs of specious contrivers of the other.’ He also wished to, ‘Caution parents against the undue exercise of their natural authority over their children in the great article of marriage’.

Richard was faithful to his scheme in showing the lurid and almost insane scheming of Lovelace to overcome Clarissa’s resistance to his seduction attempts after he has lured her away. In this, he is  helped massively by her family’s horrible insistence that she make an advantageous match with a man she finds physically repulsive.  Soon, Lovelace has Clarissa trapped in a brothel, from which she at last escapes.  He used an exciting, if incredible story, and vivid, if over the top characters, to make his points.

This novel has many weaknesses quite apart from the ones I have mentioned. For instance, Lovelace’s scheme to try Clarissa’s virtue to the point that he does, can’t  even make sense within his own frame of reference. Arguably, from his viewpoint,  having given her a short ‘trial’ rather than becoming embroiled in schemes that make acting honourably by her impossible, he should have married her. Then he could calmly refuse to reform. Still, it is, particularly given the undeveloped state of the novel in this era, an impressive achievement.

Richardson did what James N Frey calls ‘following through’ with admirable consistency, killing off Clarissa through a decline and causing Lovelace’s own death in a duel later on. We are left with little doubt of Lovelace’s final destination.

I’m glad to say I don’t believe in hell and damnation, but Richardson clearly did, and makes it obvious that Colonel Morden feels a good deal of guilt for having dispatched such a villain before he had time to repent. This is what Clarissa pleaded for him not to do in her posthumous letter.

While Richardson’s heroine and embodiment of virtue has become an anochronism, his dated but complex villain still gives inspiration and food for thought.

‘The Moon in Asterion’ – Enthralling Conclusion to the Bronze Age section of ‘Child of the Erinyes’

‘The Year God’s Daughter’ and ‘The Thinara King’ were ‘page turners’ but this is where the real fireworks take place!

You won’t be disappointed with this, the third book, which concludes in a series of shocks that even surpasses the giant shock of the earthquake so brilliantly and terrifyingly depicted in ‘The Thinara King’.

Readers of the earlier books will remember how there are two half-brother rivals from the mainland who aspire to lovely Aridela (the older name for the Ariadne, I’ve discovered), now Queen of ancient, matriarchal Crete – Menoetius, the illegitimate son of the aging King,Idimeneus, dark and serious minded, once so handsome, now left scarred as much internally as externally by the mauling by the lioness, and Chrysaleon, his golden-haired, arrogant heir.

Chrysaleon has won the games and slain the now dead Queen’s consort, earning the right to be her heiress Aridela’s King for a Year. As a mainlander he bitterly resents his impending fate, but fought in the games as he found the thought of any other man winning her unendurable; will he honour his obligation?

Chrysaleon has also won Aridela’s heart – but has her old feeling for her childhood hero Menoetius vanished along with his good looks and his joy in life?

In this book we find out both Menoetius’ and Chrysaleon’s ‘truth’ (the term used by Aridela’s mother) and also the integrity of some of the other characters. Chrysaleon and Meneotius are not the only ones to be tested. Both Themeste and Selene will be tried to the limit, and only one of them holds firm.

One thing is certain, and that is that Alexiare, Chrysaleon’s devoted slave, will stop at nothing to further his interests.

But Aridela’s awful sufferings at the hands of Harpalycus have changed her, just as her taking on the responsibilities of a ruler must, and she is gradually developing a different perspective from that of the careless worshipper of external beauty we met in the first volume.

It is in this volume that the full meaning of the ancient prophecies is revealed – and the terrible implications of Harpalycus’ vaunted immortality.

There are murderous fights, bitter intrigue, and of course, a strong theme of romance running throughout. All the ingredients for an epic story.

If, like me, you are so drawn in that you keep on reading until the small hours, do save the enthralling last section of the book for when you can do justice to the enthralling denouement.

I look forward to reading about the main characters again, in another age.

You can buy this fascinating book at various outlets. The Amazon.com
one is ‘The Year God’s Daughter’ and ‘The Thinara King’ were ‘page turners’ but this is where the real fireworks take place!

You won’t be disappointed with this, the third book, which concludes in a series of shocks that even surpasses the giant shock of the earthquake so brilliantly and terrifyingly depicted in ‘The Thinara King’.

Readers of the earlier books will remember how there are two half-brother rivals from the mainland who aspire to lovely Aridela (the older name for the Ariadne, I’ve discovered), now Queen of ancient, matriarchal Crete – Menoetius, the illegitimate son of the aging King,Idimeneus, dark and serious minded, once so handsome, now left scarred as much internally as externally by the mauling by the lioness, and Chrysaleon, his golden-haired, arrogant heir.

Chrysaleon has won the games and slain the now dead Queen’s consort, earning the right to be her heiress Aridela’s King for a Year. As a mainlander he bitterly resents his impending fate, but fought in the games as he found the thought of any other man winning her unendurable; will he honour his obligation?

Chrysaleon has also won Aridela’s heart – but has her old feeling for her childhood hero Menoetius vanished along with his good looks and his joy in life?

In this book we find out both Menoetius’ and Chrysaleon’s ‘truth’ (the term used by Aridela’s mother) and also the integrity of some of the other characters. Chrysaleon and Meneotius are not the only ones to be tested. Both Themeste and Selene will be tried to the limit, and only one of them holds firm.

One thing is certain, and that is that Alexiare, Chrysaleon’s devoted slave, will stop at nothing to further his interests.

But Aridela’s awful sufferings at the hands of Harpalycus have changed her, just as her taking on the responsibilities of a ruler must, and she is gradually developing a different perspective from that of the careless worshipper of external beauty we met in the first volume.

It is in this volume that the full meaning of the ancient prophecies is revealed – and the terrible implications of Harpalycus’ vaunted immortality.

There are murderous fights, bitter intrigue, and of course, a strong theme of romance running throughout. All the ingredients for an epic story.

If, like me, you are so drawn in that you keep on reading until the small hours, do save the enthralling last section of the book for when you can do justice to the enthralling denounement.

I look forward to reading about the main characters again, in another age.

You can buy this fascinating book at various outlets, including


Review: ‘The Quickening’ by Mari Biella

I love a psychologically slanted ghost story, and classic ghost stories generally, and this is a combination of the two.

I was sometimes put in mind of ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and also of ‘The Woman in Black.’ Not because there is anything derivative about this story, but through the power of description and the skilful building up of an atmosphere of a remorseless, impending doom closing in on the characters, struggle against it though they do.

Reminiscent of classical ghost stories though this is,the characters are depicted with a depth and realism that is only possible to a more sophisticated age than the Victorian one.

The story is told from the point of view of Lawrence Fairweather, amateur botanist, a determined atheist and believer in rationality, who together with his wife Julia and their daughter Hazel, is struggling to come to terms with the loss of their younger daughter, Emily.

The shared grief about which the couple find it impossible to communicate has driven them apart. They cannot comfort each other. Lawrence, a naturally passionate man, represses his emotions beneath a surface of icy calm and drinks steadily; the sensitive Julia has been overwhelmed by her grief, taking refuge in morphine and opium. Their daughter Hazel refuses to speak, and concern over this drives a further wedge between the unhappy couple.

And yet, passionate feeling still remains between Lawrence and Julia Fairweather; this story became so real to me that I found myself longing for them to find each other again.

The two adults’ different interpretations of what it is that is causing an atmosphere of increasing fear and despair in their family home in the lonely Fens is gradually tearing the family apart. Meanwhile Lawrence Fairweather’s friend the local Doctor tries to help keep things on an even keel, while his sister Sophie has brought up from London the medium Mrs Marchant, in whom Julia desperately wants to believe, and who embodies everything that Lawrence Fairweather despises.

The writing is sensitive and evocative. There are wonderful word portraits, of states of mind, of the stark Lincolnshire countryside.
I could quote many, but here are three of the best: –

‘I sensed that whatever lurked there in the passageway wished me ill …It’s anger and hostility seemed to seep through the wood of the door and to radiate across the bedroom.’

‘A scarlet sun slunk towards the horizon, and stained the water in the dikes and the drains…The reeds crackled and hissed in the strengthening wind. A crow gave a strange, wild cry at my approach, and soared into the ashen sky.’

‘She carried her secrets with her like a child; I imagined them curled up in the warm cradle of her body, awakening, quickening.’

Mari Biellia leaves it to the reader to judge whether or not there is anything supernatural in the sensations and visions that plague the Fairweather family.

An excellent, disturbing and absorbing read.