Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Me and General Robert Lee

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"What Does it Mean to be 10 Per Cent Irish?"

This was a search that found my blog today.

Perhaps the person doing the search simply missed out on a zero. I guess that's the most realistic explanation.

But I like the idea of somebody being ten per cent Irish. What would that look like?

On "Exposition-Dumping"

I'm still reading Dracula. Yesterday I came to my very favourite part of the novel, an extract of which follows. Feel free to skip it when it becomes tiresome to you....

When we met in Dr. Seward’s study two hours after dinner, which had been at six o’clock, we unconsciously formed a sort of board or committee. Professor Van Helsing took the head of the table, to which Dr. Seward motioned him as he came into the room. He made me sit next to him on his right, and asked me to act as secretary; Jonathan sat next to me. Opposite us were Lord Godalming, Dr. Seward, and Mr. Morris—Lord Godalming being next the Professor, and Dr. Seward in the centre. The Professor said:—

“I may, I suppose, take it that we are all acquainted with the facts that are in these papers.” We all expressed assent, and he went on:—

“Then it were, I think good that I tell you something of the kind of enemy with which we have to deal. I shall then make known to you something of the history of this man, which has been ascertained for me. So we then can discuss how we shall act, and can take our measure according...

All we have to go upon are traditions and superstitions. These do not at the first appear much, when the matter is one of life and death—nay of more than either life or death. Yet must we be satisfied; in the first place because we have to be—no other means is at our control—and secondly, because, after all, these things—tradition and superstition—are everything. Does not the belief in vampires rest for others—though not, alas! for us—on them? A year ago which of us would have received such a possibility, in the midst of our scientific, sceptical, matter-of-fact nineteenth century? We even scouted a belief that we saw justified under our very eyes. Take it, then, that the vampire, and the belief in his limitations and his cure, rest for the moment on the same base. For, let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India, even in the Chernosese; and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even is he, and the peoples fear him at this day. He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar. So far, then, we have all we may act upon; and let me tell you that very much of the beliefs are justified by what we have seen in our own so unhappy experience. The vampire live on, and cannot die by mere passing of the time; he can flourish when that he can fatten on the blood of the living. Even more, we have seen amongst us that he can even grow younger; that his vital faculties grow strenuous, and seem as though they refresh themselves when his special pabulum is plenty...

Reader, does this kind of thing make your spine tingle, as it makes mine?

"Exposition-dumping" is a term that some novelist coined to describe clumsy, all-at-once exposition in a work of fiction, as opposed to deftly dropping exposition throughout the story, like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs. I don't like the term, because I love scenes where there's lots of exposition, like the one above.

My favourite chapters in The Lord of the Rings are "The Shadow of the Past" and "The Council of Elrond", scenes that are almost entirely devoted to characters talking, and filling each other in on backstory.

My favourite part of every single Sherlock Holmes story is when the client comes to 221B Baker Street, and tells Holmes and Watson their very singular (even "grotesque") case.

I was never a huge fan of Biggles, but my older brother read him, and so I read some of the books. The only part I liked was when Raymond, the air commodore, briefs Biggles and his chums on their next mission.

In Harry Potter, the Pensieve sequences were my favourite.

In The Wicker Man (I mean the original-- and if you haven't seen it, watch it NOW), it's the part where Sergeant Howie goes to the public library of the weird pagan island and reads up on their traditions. The way the camera lingers on the creepy etchings in the book is delicious.

Why do I love such sequences?

Perhaps it's the cosiness of the characters being in no immediate danger. Perhaps it's the excitement of a new horizon opening up. I don't know.

In horror, there is usually the added element that the protagonists are learning about something supernatural, paranormal, or monstrous. There's nearly always some variation on Hamlet's famous words, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." How far the incredulity of the characters is maintained is a tricky subject. Too little incredulity, and the characters seem unreal. Too persistent an incredulity, and we get irritated at them. ("For goodness sake, you've already seen a man disappear...") Then again, how often do we feel the same thing about the disciples' persistent incredulity in the gospels?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

When the Saints Go Marching In...

...will be not quite yet, at least as far as I'm concerned, as I'm pausing my "Year with the Saints" blog.

It's getting single-figure statistics, and since the whole idea was to promote my book, I'm not sure how useful that will be. But I might revisit it. It's quite a lot of work for a questionable amount of good.

I've been told by the publisher that my book should be published in December, by the way. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Reading Dracula

I am reading Dracula. Not for the first time, but this time I am reading it for my horror club. I was actually the person who suggested we should take it as the next subject for discussion. It is usually either a story or a movie which is the "text" at my horror club meetings, but this time it is going to be the first four chapters of Dracula-- which cover Jonathan Harker's time in Castle Dracula.

I suggested we should tackle Dracula because the club has some very enthusiastic fans of the book-- people who have written and lectured on Dracula, and created visual works of art inspired by it. They seem to know it inside out. I suggested we should read our way through the book, since one of my favourite things in the world is listening to people who really know and love a subject talk about it. However, it was quickly pointed out that this would be a mammonth undertaking, so we are only going to discuss certain sections. 

Dracula is, of course, Irish. His creator was Bram Stoker from Clontarf. This is one of those facts that strike me afresh as surprising, every now and again. it is a grievance of my horror club that he is not sufficiently honoured in his native city. They were disgusted that an opportunity to name a bridge after him was missed quite recently. 

There is a delicious theory that the name "Dracula" is derived from the Irish language-- droch fhola being a literal translation of "bad blood". (I don't know how grammatical it is.) However, there is no foundation for this at all.

In my late teens, I borrowed a book about writing horror, fantasy and science fiction from the local library, and read it several times. Dracula was lauded for several reasons. One reason was the name "Dracula" itself, which was presented as the gold standard of horror character naming in a chapter on that subject. Another was Stoker's parsimonious use of the arch-villain. After the opening chapters, he rarely appears in person.

Of course, we have all been familiar with Dracula since we were toddlers. My first acquaintance with the novel itself came in a Ladybird version. My American readers may not know what Ladybird books are. They are picture-books, in which the page is usually divided half-and-half between text and a picture. In fact, most of the Ladybird books of my childhood had accompanying cassettes. There's no need to make that face; they were actually very good. Me and my two brothers listened to them over and over. Our favourites were the classic books series, and the inside back cover and facing page had a list of other classic titles in the series, with the heading "Stories...that have stood the test of time". They list had a kind of decorative gold frame pictured around it, and around that the page was coloured deep brown, like mahogany.  This stirred my imagination with the idea of timeless classics, and the magic of story.

The acquisition of Dracula was especially memorable. One afternoon, my father suggested out of the blue that we should buy it, and gave us the money. He'd obviously seen it in the supermarket. It's one of those little gestures that always remain with me.

Anyway, even though I've read the novel a couple of times since then, it's the Ladybird book that, in my mind, remains the definitive version. The phrase "London, with its teeming millions" (used in horrified anticipation of Dracula arriving there) has ever since evoked for me the poetry of a great city, better than any other phrase. The cry of the female vampire, upon being denied Jonathan Harker's neck in Castle Dracula-- "are we to have nothing tonight?"-- was rendered so powerfully on the cassette, that I can still hear it all these years later.

The passage from the Ladybird book that impressed me the most, however, had nothing horrific about it. Just before a terrible sea-storm occurs off the coast of Whitby, on the day that Dracula's load of coffins arrive in the town, there is such a spectacular sunset that a small crowd gathers to look at it: "The approach of sunset was so very beautiful, so grand in its masses of splendidly-coloured clouds, that there was quite an assemblage on the walk along the cliff in the old churchyard to enjoy the beauty." I'm glad this detail made it into the Ladybird book because I remember being completely fascinated by the idea of people actually stopping to look at the sky. I'd never heard of such a thing.

I read the book proper in my early twenties, but I can remember next to nothing about it. It's extraordinary how that happens. There are many novels of which I can say the same thing; Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment, The Way of All Flesh, Pride and Prejudice, and many others. It's as though a kind of film descended over my attention, or memory.

I read it again more recently, and got more out of it, but it still didn't made as big an impression on me as the Ladybird version.

The passage that excited me the most in the entire book, each time I read it, is probably Count Dracula's rhapsody on his family's past (this is before he has revealed himself as a supernatural being). Please skip this purple passage if you start to find it boring:

I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvania history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said “we,” and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking. I wish I could put down all he said exactly as he said it, for to me it was most fascinating. It seemed to have in it a whole history of the country. He grew excited as he spoke, and walked about the room pulling his great white moustache and grasping anything on which he laid his hands as though he would crush it by main strength. One thing he said which I shall put down as nearly as I can; for it tells in its way the story of his race:—

“We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, ay, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the were-wolves themselves had come [....] Ah, young sir, the Szekelys—and the Dracula as their heart’s blood, their brains, and their swords—can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach. The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.”

The Count's words of appreciation for the howling of his wolves have become deservedly famous: "Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!". Indeed, I think those words might express the poetry of horror better than any other.

Another thrilling line from the book: "We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things." 

I'd always assumed that Dracula was the book which introduced the vampire into popular fiction. But this is actually far from the case. Vampires were already seen as clichéd by the time that Stoker came along. He gave new life to the genre, so to speak. Indeed, this time round, I've noticed that, when the term "vampire" is first used in the novel, it's not even explained to the reader.

I'm often withering about feminist literary theory, post-colonial literary theory, and all the other lefty, identity-obsessed fields of literary theory on this blog. Well, the proponents of such approaches absolutely love Dracula, and I have to admit that it's a book in which it's difficult not to see such theories borne out. In fact, I wonder how much of this is actually conscious artistry on Stoker's part.

For instance: there is the famous scene where Lucy Westenra, who has become a vampire, is staked through the heart by the combined efforts of her fiancé and two other men who proposed to her earlier in the book. OK, feminists. You can have that one.

And the fact that Dracula is quite literally an infectious creature from a backward and uncivilized country, intent on corrupting and polluting the women of England, does seem to be a genuine projection of cultural anxieties. (The fact that Stoker was Irish is often dragged into these discussions. Was Dracula Irish, in a deeper sense than just having an Irish creator? Was Stoker instilling him with all his own feelings of being "the other" in England? Why am I even talking like this?)

 It's certainly a story...that has stood the test of time. I'm looking forward to hearing the horror club discussion on it!

St. Eadburh of Bicester

She is my saint of the day on my "Year with the Saints" blog.

My last entry has received a grand total of six views, so I thought I'd plug it again!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Nationalism is as Old as Mankind

I really believe this, and this is the impression I get from my historical reading.

The problem is that I don't have much of a head for history, so I can rarely marshal my scattered impressions when I get into an argument.

But today I was reading about St. Hedwig, a Queen of Poland in the fourteenth century. Her father had intended another one of his daughters for the throne, and arranged a marriage with a foreign king, but the Polish nobles weren't pleased about it.

Wikipedia says: "However, both her daughters had been engaged to foreign princes (Sigismund and William, respectively) unpopular in Poland. Polish lords who were opposed to a foreign monarch regarded the members of the Piast dynasty as possible candidates to the Polish throne."

What's this? That sounds very nationalistic. Way back in the fourteenth century. But wasn't nationalism invented in the nineteenth century? The neo-reactionaries who are all about aristocracy and disdain nationalism wouldn't approve.

And I've encountered hundreds of similar little references in my historical reading through the years. Maybe I should compile a dossier.