Gothic Reads

After indulging in a bit of Halloween fancy dress this weekend, followed by a seasonal Tim Burton offering (Sweeney Todd, to be precise), I decided it was time to spook myself out with some gothic literature. Here are some brief overviews of a few of my favourite scary reads, in no particular order, if you want to fire your imagination on these dark nights…

Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

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A gorgeously atmospheric ‘love’ story based on the gothic tradition of the late eighteenth century, Wuthering Heights is eerie rather than terrifying, and strangely hypnotic- haunting you with questions long after you’ve read it. Featuring implied necrophilia, possible incest, and a myriad of other gothic characteristics, it is memorable on the basis that the mysteries it presents to the reader are never truly solved, remaining instead, like the ghosts of the characters themselves, at the heart of the dark and dramatic landscape that Bronte created.

nb. If you find the passages of Joseph’s dialect a bit hard-going, don’t worry…even those of us who are native to Yorkshire struggle to understand it!

The Turn of The Screw- Henry James

Turn of the Screw

Horror stories are always much creepier when they involve children…

This story of a governess and her two wards, set in a secluded old mansion, is unsettling not just because of its supernatural elements, but because you’re never quite sure who to believe, and, as a result, remain on edge at all times. Is the governess experiencing a mental breakdown, or are the ghosts of former members of the household really haunting her? Are the children as sinister as they appear, or has the governess become obsessed with the idea that evil forces are at work, corrupting their innocence? Whether you read it as a psychological thriller or as a ghost story, the Turn of the Screw is an indisputable gothic gem, destined to make you ponder the reliability of both the narrator and the human mind.

The Little Stranger- Sarah Waters

The-Little-Stranger

When I first read this, on a dreary night in the dead of winter, I eventually lost all sense of reason (not that I had much in the first place!), finding myself terrified of even going to the toilet alone!

Based around the fading fortunes of a formerly wealthy family in 1940s Warwickshire, The Little Stranger is the story of a series of strange and spooky happenings that eventually lead to their downfall. Characterised by the traditional gothic tropes of decline, decay and decrepitude, this contemporary horror slowly builds up momentum, the tension becoming tighter and tighter, until you feel as though your nerve, like the once beautiful house that the novel centres around, is beginning to crumble!

As in The Turn of The Screw, much of the horror comes from the idea that a child may be at the root of the supernatural goings-on. Like most ghosts stories I’ve read, it is uncanny rather than overtly scary, but the creation of a wonderfully tense atmosphere is what makes The Little Stranger so utterly compelling!

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories- Angela Carter

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A series of gothic narratives inspired by traditional fairytales, which, in turn, inspired my own fancy dress attire! Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast all feature here, though in a slightly different form to the conventional tales. To categorise Carter simply as a ‘feminist’ writer would be doing her a disservice; this collection of short stories is sensual, dark, and dense with the most opulent imagery. Yes, her writing is undeniably feminist in tone and plot, but it also rich, abstract and enlightening, encouraging you, whatever your gender, to explore the many nuances of human nature. Whilst fairytales are conventionally quite black and white, Carter’s stories are a vivid array of colours, constantly presenting you with alternative perspectives, catalysing multiple questions, and often offering no definite answers. They may not terrify you, but these stories are perfect for creating a suitably gothic atmosphere for the season of darkness.

Of course, there are lots of other options to explore; these are just my personal favourites. As a fan of the gothic, I’ve read the majority of the classics- The Castle of Otranto; The Monk; Dracula-, but am always on the lookout for more spine-tingling spookiness, so recommendations are welcome, whatever time of year it is!

To finish, I’ll leave you with my version of Little Red Riding Hood:

Little Red Pic

Happy Halloween!

Kitchen Creativity

Finding inspiration in everyday life isn’t always easy. Though I am a voracious reader and frequently visit new places, endeavouring to assimilate as many social and cultural influences as possible, there are times when it seems like my mind is completely and utterly devoid of any sort of poetic thought (which is partly why I created this blog- to force me into regular acts of creativity!). At times like these, instead of waiting for inspiration to come, I actively seek out creative opportunities.

This week I made the decision to carry out a simple writing exercise as a means of ‘assisting’ my brain. Despite getting some odd looks, I raided the kitchen cupboards, collecting a few random objects, and assembled my ‘stimuli’ on the dining room table.

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As you can see from the photo above, the things I chose were mainly common objects that can be found in most homes: a tape measure; a map; a box of matches; a shell; a clove of garlic; …and a masquerade mask (which doesn’t technically belong in my kitchen, but I thought I’d make use of it anyway!). When we encounter these objects on a day-to-day basis, we don’t always think about what they might represent or how we can use them in a creative way. Sometimes, however, if you have the time and you’re that way inclined, it’s interesting to spend a few minutes thinking about them (yes, thinking about a clove of garlic is interesting!), if only to remind ourselves to be open to new possibilities and ways of looking at the world.

 The Task

In the first part of my writing exercise, I allowed myself a maximum of two minutes per item to write down ten words or phrases that immediately popped into my head when looking at/thinking about it.

Once I had completed this part of the task, I used the words/phrases as inspiration to write six unrelated haikus, one for each piece of stimulus. As haikus are very short poems, consisting of a line of 5 syllables, a line of 7 syllables, and another line of 5 syllables, I thought this would be the perfect way of exercising my poetic brain. The fact that they’re so concentrated means that every word has to be very carefully chosen to create the greatest possible impact, however, so they’re not as simple as they initially seem! This does make you more aware of phonetics though, so it can be a good poetic technique to use with children who are developing their understanding of sounds.

 These are the results:

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 Garlic- contained, wrapped, layers, delicate, bunched, skin, bulging, veined, whole, crinkly

Delicate layers

peel away, revealing skin’s

luminous wonder

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 Map- navigation, geographical, winding, belonging, travel, route, plot, guide, landmarks, streets

Belonging to time,

streets of memory wind through

this town of my mind

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Matches- strike, burn, rage, ignite, light, glow, short fuse, fuel, primitive, potential

Potential to strike.

Short fuse, ready to ignite-

fire contained in light

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Tape Measure- length, unravel, distance, height, coiled, metres, measurements, quantify, numerical, growth

Unravel metres

of yourself and we will be

at the height of love

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Mask- masquerade, disguise, all in the eyes, opulence, glitter, facade, ribboned, riches, hedonistic, decadence

Opulent disguise,

facade of glittering lives-

it’s all in the eyes

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Shell- ancient, whorls, unicorn’s horn, stick of rock, waves, textured, spiral, fairground, home, pearled

Horn of unicorn,

Textured whorls of pearled beauty-

Sea’s gift to the shore

Although I didn’t produce anything particularly great, this exercise really helped to alleviate my creative block, and rejuvenated my brain. As a result, I would definitely recommend it to anyone in need of a little creative jumpstart. Whilst it might seem like a very simple task, it can be amazingly enlightening, encouraging you to consider the nuts and bolts of everyday existence in a far more philosophical way, and heightening your awareness of words and sounds in the process.

Settling down in front of the telly/snuggling up with a good book every night might be relaxing, but, as I discovered, every so often it’s good to step outside of your usual routine and spark the creativity within…

Eating Fairy Fruit and Other Stories

To say that I have always loved reading would be a slight understatement. From the moment I entered the realm of literature, books have been my primary passion, the very air that I breathe. Coming from a family who always encouraged but never truly understood my reverence for the written word, I always felt like I was a bit of an oddity. The magnetic allure of other worlds, however, was too strong for me to care much about my difference in this one.

Of course, the older and more educated I became, the more like-minded people I met- people who had grown up on a diet of Narnia and the Famous Five, consuming stories of adventure as if they were Smarties. Like me, the world that they most enjoyed inhabiting was the one contained in their imagination. Whilst this fantastical sanctuary proved to be a source of wonder and comfort to us all as children and teenagers, it didn’t always prove to be the best preparation for the often mundane reality of adult existence.

In Neil Gaiman’s recent lecture on libraries, books and daydreaming, published in The Guardian, one sentence particularly resonated with me. Speaking of the virtues of reading, Gaiman expressed an idea that I’ve often thought:

 ‘Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in.’

The fact is, in our fast-paced and ever-changing real world, discontentment is rife. In the last few years alone, the relentless doom and gloom resulting from the recession has dominated our TV screens, causing widespread disenchantment. Unfortunately, as we are only too aware, life in the real world doesn’t automatically result in a clear-cut denouement- the ‘happy ever after’ we romanticised as children.  There are no magical cures lovingly administered by beautiful maidens (the service provided by the NHS, needless to say, doesn’t count); doorways to other lands don’t exist (at least not literally); and Mr Darcy failed to materialise at any party I’ve ever been to (to my great and utter dismay). Life is tough. And often pretty boring. But, the truth is, it doesn’t have to be.

Although my love of reading may have caused me to become a bit of a dreamer, it has also provided me with a yearning for adventure that is only satiated by actually doing exciting things. A few years ago, for example, having just spit up with my boyfriend and feeling dissatisfied with my job, I made the decision to go inter-railing for two weeks… alone. Some people might not think this is a particularly adventurous thing to do, yet it was certainly something quite liberating for me, and helped me to feel as though I was regaining some kind of control over my existence during a negative period of my life.

More recently, I made the brave/stupid (*delete as applicable) decision to quit my job in education in pursuit of a more creatively fulfilling career. Whilst my job wasn’t particularly mentally demanding, I felt perpetually devoid of energy and creativity, and knew I had to take action in order to avoid slipping into a work-induced coma for the rest of my days. With the guidance and support of a few lovely individuals, and a lot of determination and foresight on my part, I have managed to make an exciting transition from fed-up full-timer to proactive pursuer. Having already had another poem published; volunteered at a literature festival; started a blog; and been offered an unpaid internship at a theatre, I finally feel as though my life is starting to resemble the adventure I always pictured myself having.

I appreciate that not everyone has the opportunity to do such things. People with the financial responsibilities of children, mortgages, and forthcoming weddings, like many people of my generation, aren’t at liberty to quit their jobs in search of the life they want to lead. This is not what I am trying to say, however. The point that I’m making is that, regardless of circumstance, everyone has the power to alter their life to some extent; to break up the monotony of working life by indulging in something they enjoy, or following a long-held dream.

Whether you decide to take up a new hobby, plan an amazing holiday, or donate some of your time to helping others, we are all capable of taking charge of our own existence, and, ultimately, enhancing our own happiness. Life may not be always be quite as interesting outside the margins of a book, but we can at least try to live a fulfilling existence. Sometimes we just need a little imagination to make our small fantasies tangible. After all, as Einstein famously said, ‘Logic will get you from A- Z. Imagination will get you everywhere.’.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

Abundant Autumn

For many people, the seasonal shift that starts every September is simply the gloomy precursor to short days, endless nights, and the dreaded threat of a winter cold.

Whilst most people no longer associate autumn with glorious abundance, the first chill in the air sends me into spasms of ‘fruitfulness’, my creative faculties instantly ignited by the flourish of colours in the world of the outdoors.

To celebrate the dying of the light, it’s become a bit of a tradition for a couple of my friends and I to have an autumnal picnic. As ‘autumn babies’ we all have a strange affinity with the season, and love nothing more than to don the layers for our own little feast.

This year, we may have done it a bit early. The first leaves had barely graced the grass before we were laying out our spread in the park, eagerly discussing the arrival of ‘magic in the air’. There were no trees ablaze with the fiery shades of the season; no romantic mists; no swallows gathering for epic journeys halfway across the world.

Even in the absence of these Keatsian notions however, the park had a certain quality; a charm; a sense of enchantment that made my skin tingle, and infused all of us with excitement at the prospect of the rosy glow of autumn.

And I realised: this is what I love about this time of year- the anticipation of awe. The knowledge that something magical is about to happen to the natural world. The fact that anyone can experience it.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t always need money to enjoy the world. As long as you have some degree of appreciation, imagination, and a willingness to attune your senses to the elemental magic in the air, life can be as abundant with wonder as you want it to be…

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