My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

The Gothic subculture is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, and looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Tim Burton, Siouxsie Sioux and Anne Rice et al.) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. Goth should not be limited by what is considered "goth", inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

My 10 Favourite (Fiction) Books & Series Of Books

This is in no particular order. I was asked what my favourite book was, but have the problem that I have too many books I really like to pick one clear favourite, and how much I like a specific book really depends on what mood I'm in.

1) The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake (1950)
This set of books is a sprawling epic, and like many Gothic novels, the setting is key to the novel. The sprawling Castle Gormenghast and the surrounding ramshackle town and Twisted Woods are certainly one of my favourite creepy settings in literature, and how Mervyn Peake describes all of it is delicious descriptive prose. The story is part coming-of-age, part Gothic horror and part satire and social commentary on the society of the time. It follows the life of Titus Groan, son of Sepulchrave Seventy-sixth Lord of Groan, and the intrigues of his weird noble family and their scheming servants, who live lives of ancient rituals whose meanings have long since been obfuscated by time. It is spread across 3 long books, but I think they are well worth it. The first two books are set at Gormenghast, and the third is set in a weird science-fiction city that will appeal to fans of older science fiction and Steampunk

The BBC made an adaption of the first two novels, involving Christopher Lee as Flay. It's very good for a series produced in the year 2000, but it is definitely a product of its time as far as things like effects go, but I think this lends it a theatricality that is quite appealing in its own way. It also inspired the Cure songs 'The Drowning Man' and 'All Cats Are Grey' on the album Faith - which I think was definitely a return to the Gothic for them.


2) The Lord of The Rings Trilogy (and the extended tales of Middle Earth) by J.R.R. Tolkien
Popularised again recently by the two film trilogies by Peter Jackson, with a vast fandom, both of those who fell in love with the books long before the films, and those who were first introduced to the stories by the two film trilogies, Tolkien's works make him, alongside fellow 'Inkling' C.S. Lewis one of the fathers of modern High Fantasy. It's elves, orcs, wizards, ancient evils and men in armour, shield-maidens and folk that can turn into bears, an epic tale of good and evil, with a dragon, some things that aren't quite dragons but are big mean flying beasties, and creepy undead Ringwraiths. It's got plenty of content that will appeal to the Gothic heart (Shelob's lair, and Shelob herself, the vast arachnid horror that she is, the Barrow Wights, Sauron himself, the aforementioned Ringwraiths, and there are werewolves and vampires in the tales of the 'earlier' history of Middle Earth).

Personally, I think for Tolkien to be fully enjoyed, one needs to read The Children of Hurin, the Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, etc. as well 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord of the Rings', as it is so much more beautiful as the long and sprawling sagas of a rich and detailed world; a level of history and world-building that makes it seem like it could almost have been real. I went as far as trying to 'learn' - or at least piece together as much as can be learned, because Tolkien never really completed the endless task of compiling his languages, and all the lexicons are partial and the grammar left in a state of construction - various forms of Elvish, but I am a very, very nerdy nerd.


3) Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice (1976)
Oh, the modern Gothic vampire tale... Of all the 'Vampire Chronicles' is the first and in my opinion the original was the best. It is sprawling in how it goes through time and it is glorious in its purple prose. Louis and Lestat are decadent, and a fascinating pair of vampires, strange opposites - Lestat's definitely the more predatory and classically vampiric, and Louis was angst ridden, but not to the point of being whiney - at least not in this volume, where he recounts his long and tragic life to a reporter. It was adapted into a film in 1994 (has it really been that long?)

I did enjoy most of the series, but I feel some were certainly stronger than others - 'The Vampire Armand' and 'Memnoch the Devil' being my least favourite. When Anne Rive went through a period of writing things with an overly religious tone it came over as a bit like she was bludgeoning the reader with her personal faith, rather than writing a narrative set very deeply into a Christian cosmology and Heaven/Hell dichotomy. I enjoy plenty of fiction set in a universe where Heaven and Hell are locked in a millennial conflict, just not when the author seems to be preaching without subtlety. There are other issues I have with some of the series, especially 'The Vampire Armand' and Marius' pederasty seeming almost glorified, but for the most part, I love the detail with which she paints the very sensuous Gothic world her characters inhabit, and the scale and historical scope. It reads more like the saga of a long-lived family than  a series with a linear plot, but sometimes it is important to have read the key novels in the series for others to make sense



4) Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003) 
A dystopian tale of genetic engineering, love and the human condition this book is Margaret Atwood being the literary genius she can be. Nearly everyone knows of 'The Handmaid's Tale' and it is taught in schools (in fact, how I first encountered Margaret Atwood's work) as an icon of social commentary in dystopian science-fiction (or 'speculative fiction' as she prefers to call it), and one with a decidedly feminist angle, and a good few people know 'The Blind Assassin', but Atwood's more recent dystopian science-fiction seems less well known (or at least in the circles I travel, few have read it or even heard of it), and I do wish to mention it for that reason, but also because it is hauntingly dark. I will mention that it deals with sexual abuse from the perpetrator's perspective (which is all the more chilling, I feel) and has a lot of content some people might find disturbing, but I suspect most of my readers err on the darker side of fiction, and this will not be much of a bother. There are two sequels, 'The Year of the Flood' and 'MaddAddam', making this the first of a trilogy, but it also stands alone as its own novel (as I think it was first envisaged) and which I enjoyed far more, if 'enjoyed' is the right word - it left me haunted for a good few weeks after. 



6) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Murakami Haruki (1985)
Murakami Haruki is more famous for 'Norwegian Wood', which is a classic, but is certainly not the sort of genre I really enjoy reading. This book is something deliberately confusing and twisting on itself - it is a book for fans of films like 'Vanilla Sky', 'Inception' and the like, and is about the conscious and subconscious, and in two parallel narratives (some editions involve you having to turn the book upside down and read the other version in the same book but running 'backwards' while seeming forwards), and is a mixture of cyber-punk and surreal fairy-tale, and both dark and fascinating, and also in turn beautiful and unnerving. 


7) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
I had to include at least one Gothic horror from the genre's hey-day. I doubt that the novel requires much introduction to the readers of this blog, what with it having become ingrained in popular culture through various film adaptations. It is the tale of the mad-scientist who builds a person by re-animating the re-assembled parts of several corpses, and the results and ramifications of this act. Mary Shelley wrote the novel when she was only 18, and it was a work of inspired genius. 


8) The Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013)
It's not my favourite Neil Gaiman book (that is probably 'The Graveyard Book, which is technically an older children's book, but which I love dearly. Part of me wishes I had grown up in a graveyard with ghosts and a caring vampire, but most of me realises how terribly impractical that would be!), but I am going to put this on the list because I will do a list of children's books separately, and because it is a bloody good book. It deals with a boy who lives near two women and a girl who are pretty much the Maiden, Mother and Crone, and his adventures with the young girl after evil spirits find a gateway into the world. The story is told from the perspective of the boy as a grown man, as if it's a faded memory, one that seems true to him yet impossible. The whole thing has quite a few Neo-Pagan undercurrents about the Maiden, Mother and Crone, life and re-birth, and the spirit world - but they are handled subtly, more there for those who recognise them rather than announced in the text. 

It won Book of the Year in the British National Book awards in 2013, and was the third time Neil Gaiman won a Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2014,  and thoroughly deserves both. I went to see Neil Gaiman talk about it and read some, which can be read about ::here::

I would actually recommend all of his books. 'American Gods' is amazing, 'Neverwhere' is a weird and really rather Gothic tale of 'London Below' and I loved the collaboration with Terry Pratchett 'Good Omens' and all of the Sandman Comics, and Coraline... Oh, just everything he has ever done, really!


9) Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987) 
Terry Pratchett is another author where I love pretty much everything he has written, especially the Discworld series. Out of the Discworld series, I actually like some of the earlier books better. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of time for some of the newer books, but there was more word-play (and silly foot-notes) in the earlier books, and while the later books were longer and more immersive, the shorter books were often quite densely packed with brilliance. Mort is about a young man who ends up being apprentice to Death (the grim reaper) and is set in the Discworld. It's also not one of the meatier books, and I think is the sort of Discworld book you can read again and again and pick up funny little details you missed the first time around, rather than the sort for getting lost in a long and glorious story. For a book about death-themed stuff, Mort is riotously funny - it is a book where I cackle when reading it. 

It is the first introduction of Death as a lead character in the Discworld universe, but he's a memorable and returning character (as is his amazing grand-daughter.) and he is one of my favourite characters, alongside Granny Weatherwax and the other witches. Other books featuring Death as a main character include the more philosophical 'Reaper Man' about death, industrialisation and progress as much as character interaction, and 'Soul Music' which is not just about motorcycles and the magic of rock music in the middle of a surreal fantasy world, but is certainly also about that too.



10) The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (1980)
This is mostly a detective story, but it is an unusual one. For a start, it is set in a medieval monastery, but this is not a Brother Cadfael mystery. In many ways, this novel works a bit like the sort of Gothic horror where all the supernatural horrors turn out to have a rational explanation, and the isolated mountain-top monastery certainly gives it a claustrophobic and labyrinthine setting - with the library's arrangement of rooms being a deliberate puzzle/maze and the architecture itself quite a feature of the novel (the prominence of atmospheric setting of this nature is a classic feature of Gothic horror), and the deaths in their strange and gruesome manner again give the novel a macabre twist that makes the whole situation seem like it borders on the demonic, as does the story being told from the perspective of a very religious Medieval novice monk. It's quite a deliberately intellectual novel, and it is one of those books where erudite readers will probably catch who the murderer is pretty quickly from clues within the story, something I can find a little pretentious at times, but it is still a very enjoyable book, and certainly one for those who enjoy Gothic novels but not necessarily supernatural tales.

For those who are interested in the architecture in the novel, it was inspired by ::this:: real life remote monastery in Italy.

☽Ω☾

An honourable mention goes to Dracula by Bram Stoker, which I love for its place in history, but never really enjoyed as a book. I think the way it hops between perspectives due to its epistolary format meant that I couldn't really get into a 'flow' with it. I have re-read it several times to make myself understand it better, and now that it is familiar territory, it has been much easier for me to immerse myself in it and the characters presented. I love many of the Dracula film adaptations, and much else that has been inspired by the novel, but the novel itself is something I had to grow to love, rather than something I loved with from the moment of turning the pages. I collect editions of 'Dracula' with interesting covers. This is theoretically quite pointless, as they're all the same story, but aesthetically it all makes me very happy.

Another honourable mention goes to Michael Moorcock's Elric novels - the sadistic, terrifying and yet beautiful Melnibonéans, something akin to elves with the personalities of vampires, are creatures that I thought very fascinating for the same reasons I love reading about vampires. I wasn't so keen on Eternal Champion books set in other periods and worlds, but the almost dream-like surreal high fantasy worlds of Elric really captured my imagination. Elric's cursed sword Stormbringer that drinks the souls of those he slays, the immortal knight who longs for death, the ancient, beautiful and decadent city falling into ruins, all common tropes in modern Gothic fantasy (and all with much older literary histories - Stormbringer brings to mind both Kullervo's sword and the myths about swords with evil spirits from Japan), but when the Elric books came out these were much fresher, and when I read them they were new to me, plus Moorcock's style made me feel like I was travelling with the doomed Lord himself. Elric is somewhere between a Byronic anti-hero - full of angst, introspection and both tragic and heroic.

There's a few books I enjoy reading that didn't make it to this list - Jim Butcher's 'Dresden Files' series, 'The Brutal Art' (a tragic tale of murder, ableism, and abuse - half detective novel, and half family saga) and Robin Hobb's 'Farseer' novels, and of course J.R.R. Martin's 'Game of Thrones' saga... I hear he also wrote a vampire novel, so I'll have to track THAT down. I like high fantasy nearly as much as I like vampire novels and dystopias.

My guilty pleasure is reading spy/assassin/international intrigue thrillers; the stuff action movies are made of. Some of them are actually good books, many others I just read to pass the time and while exciting, are quite terribly written, and I don't care! It is like eating chocolate - sometimes it is luxurious and delicious, perhaps a twist in a familiar recipe, perhaps a decadent desert... but sometimes it's a cheap chocolate bar from the corner shop, an unhealthy indulgence that is enjoyable nonetheless! 

I would love to hear what my readers' favourite books are, and if any bloggers want to do their own version of this, consider it the '10 Favourite Books' tag, and go right on ahead! I would also love to receive suggestions for books I might enjoy, as perhaps those mentioned above give some sort of idea what things I enjoy. 

12 comments:

  1. Glad to see some Elric love! My favorite books are a Psion and its sequel Catspaw, I guess they're cyberpunk but the main character is extremely relatable.

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    1. Elric of Melniboné is a thoroughly under-appreciated character and the series does not have the fandom it deserves. Just because it's science fiction and fantasy from the '60s and '70s does not mean it isn't worthwhile any more, but it seems forgotten!

      Who wrote Psion and Catspaw? I don't read that much cyberpunk these days, but I like science fiction in general and I'm always on the look-out for titles I haven't read.

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  2. Ah, 'The Name of the Rose' is a lovely book. I used to avoid it, since I thought it would be a story about some cliche Anna Karenina-like heroine or Jane Austen something. Then some day it just appeared in my house, I decided to give it gave it a go out of boredom and I learned it wasn't some cheesy 19th century romance. It was packed with religious imagery and Latin and it was awesome.
    That being said, while I would like to write tag like this someday, in reality I'm a boring person who reads mostly popular science and fiction doesn't really appeal to me that much to find as many as 10 favourite books in that genre.

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    1. You could write 10 Popular Science Books! I read SO MANY books in general that I could do '10 favourite architecture books' or '10 favourite history books' and I'm already working on '10 favourite Gothic children's books' ... When I lived in England I had a room that was floor-to-ceiling books on two walls and more books stored under my bed in boxes, and while I've parted with a lot of books since then due to moving house a few times, I've also accumulated a lot more.

      I remember buying 'The Name Of The Rose' from a school book-buying 'club' in sixth form - I was struggling to pick a book, and I think either my English Literature teacher or the librarian recommended it, and they clearly knew my tastes! I remember being skeptical at first, but then utterly loving it.

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  3. This is a good list. I have to agree with you about "Interview With the Vampire." I still consider it the best of the Vampire Chronicles.

    I do have a suggestion that may interest you. Consider reading Anne Rice's trilogy on the Lives of the Mayfair Witches. The books include "The Witching Hour," "Lasher," and "Taltos." Although these tales are based in New Orleans, some aspects of them revolve around occurrences in Scotland.

    Later Rice wrote a couple of other novels entitled "Blackwood Farm," and Blood Canticle. What's interesting about these is that the two separate story lines begin to mesh; especially, in Blood Canticle. I found the mix quite interesting.

    Thank you for providing this list. There's a lot of good reading out there.

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    1. I've read most of the rest of Anne Rice's work, except for the erotica written under a pseudonym. I don't really like the whole Mayfair witches series in general; the whole Taltos thing is just a bit weird for me. I don't like Blood Canticle as a book, and not because it's a Mayfair Witches book as well as a Vampire Chronicles book - but because I think it's her poorest work. However, it's not something I can hold against her, because she wrote it after her husband died and when she was going through a really bad time in her life, and while she has familiar characters like Lestat and Mona act out of character in it, and it gets oddly preachy (and Lestat wants to meet the Pope??) I guess it was cathartic for her. I just wish that her editor had said to her to hold on to that one for a few years, and bring the two threads together in the future, re-write it now or something.

      The Prince Lestat is the 'Marmite' of Anne Rice novels - people seem to either gush over it or hate it. Personally I enjoyed it, and I think Anne Rice has revived Lestat as the wicked but charming brat-prince of vampires I love quite well. Sure, the story seemed to ramble about in places, but I don't mind rambling about in Anne Rice's imagination.

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    2. I'm reading Prince Lestat right now. So far, I'm finding it okay, but she has made Lestat bigger than life. I'm not sure that I like that. We'll see how Prince Lestat progresses.

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    3. Lestat's ego is larger than life :P I really ought to get around to re-reading all the vampire chronicles in order at some point... even the ones I don't like :P

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  4. I see some great ones there! I just read The Ocean at the End of the Lane after reading this and loved it! Thanks!

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    1. I'm so glad that someone took a recommendation from this list, read it and enjoyed it :) I really love the books on this list, and I like it when someone else gets to enjoy them too!

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  5. This is a fantastic list! Thank you for sharing; I found some books I would love to check out, particularly Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I would love to make a list of my own favorites once life stops being so hectic.

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    1. I look forwards to reading that - although my current "books to read" pile is quite high.

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