This book was alternately awesome and incredibly bloody frustrating. I will say this for him, Simmons has done his research and you can feel his love for the Victorian period in every page, and he definitely captures the dark side, the rotting side, the stinking side of a glittering era. No complaints there. But it’s so much. Real reviewers wrote about this in the papers, but I ignored it. But then I tackled this 800 page beast of a novel and, to be fair, it does have a sort of Dickensian inclusion about it: everything from biography, to Victorian burial practices, etc. When Wilkie Collins started doing a sarcastic literary analysis of Bleak House, though, is when I was just tempted to give up.
Short plot synopsis, which you likely already know: the book follows the last five years of the life of Charles Dickens, and his friend, rival, and fellow author Wilkie Collins (who, by the way, would probably be absolutely horrified and insulted by the way in which he is portrayed in this novel). Dickens is involved in a tragic train crash at Staplehurst one morning (a scene which, by the way, is sheer horror at its best), during which he meats the horrific, phantasmagoric creature Drood, who proceeds to haunt both Dickens and Collins, who imbibes increasingly large amounts of laudanum, opium, and then morphine. Who is Drood, and what are his nefarious purposes? Collins intends to find out with predictably tragic consequences. The tightly plotted novel has more twists and turns than you could hope for in this homage to both great Victorian authors.
I just didn’t really enjoy the whole thing, unfortunately. I wanted to. I really like Simmons’ writing. But it was just too long, too much, too un-Collins-like in the narrative voice… I don’t know. I definitely don’t regret putting in the time and effort to finish but I probably would not read it again, or buy it.
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Mostly the thing by Peter Ackroyd that I love the most is London, his exhaustively descriptive “biography” of the city. You can feel his passion for the city in that book and actually in all of his fiction; much of it is set in mid-1800s London, and the world feels very realized. So too does his tone: it is pitch-perfect 1800s writing, but in The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein I was unsure whether I was reading a parody of the Gothic or an earnest pastiche.
The book is based on a simple premise: what if Victor Frankenstein was a real doctor, a real contemporary of the Shelleys? What if he, under the influence of “Bysshe” (as he calls him) decided to attempt to resurrect the dead? And what if it, of course, went horribly wrong? It was a premise that intrigued me, as I’d been about to just dismiss the book as Frankenstein fanfiction. It’s a conceit that doesn’t quite work… The Shelleys themselves are window dressing; the real matter of concern is Victor, his more than slightly homoerotic obsession with Shelley and his increasing instability, which is hinted at throughout the novel until reaching the end, which I won’t spoil if you’re so inclined to read it, but the end is just slightly ridiculous. I KNOW Ackroyd knows his history so I wasn’t sure whether the misrepresentations and errors were Victor’s unreliable narrating, or whether they had been changed to better suit the plot, or what. This was slightly annoying after a while.
Mostly, though, it is an entertaining book and Ackroyd is a talented writer who creates enjoyable fiction, but at the end I was left wondering: why? In the end it seemed so unnecessary. From the concept itself to some of its more unsavory moments (the Creature’s first act upon being resurrected is to masturbate itself; there is a long account of Frankenstein himself jerking off partially reanimated corpses… yeah). Frankenstein , the original, was so effective in its horror because of its essential moral underpinnings: everyone is capable of good and evil, but are shaped by the society around them. It’s a book that, reading it today, can still chill, shock, and sadden. The Casebook is entertaining, but at the end, seems somewhat superfluous.
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After reading Dracula and then getting curious and checking out the Swedish movie adaptation of Låt den rätte komma in (and enjoying it–it was gorgeously shot and well-paced if also seriously depressing), I picked up the book and decided to give it a try… and yikes, the movie actually left out a lot? This isn’t just a vampire novel… Oskar is a young boy who’s miserable in his small town, bullied at school to such an extent that he’s become incontinent. He meets Eli, his new next door neighbor, who is quite mysterious and doesn’t seem affected by the chilly winter. And then a series of mysterious murders plunge the town into a panic.
The book was really the emotional equivalent of getting punched in the stomach: just everything awful about humanity (and non-humanity, really) was contained in these pages. The prose was spare and I could not put it down because even though I knew what was going to happen (sort of–as I said, the movie is a great adaptation but leaves out a lot for expediency) I needed to know. The characters of Eli and Oskar are strangely affecting, even though both of them are monstrous in their own ways, and the working-class neighborhood of Blakeberg and its inhabitants are almost as much of a main character as the two children. An uncomfortable book–it doesn’t shy away from pretty terrible issues like pedophilia and alcoholism, to name a few–but a suspenseful and well-written one that will keep you turning the pages.
More specifically, the new version annotated by Leslie Klinger. All right, before I even talk about the book, I would like to discuss annotations. In general I think they are a fantastic idea, especially in books written in time periods that I love, like the Victorian era. Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed, as in this edition, where sometimes the story is postponed for several pages because the annotations have taken over. I can’t even read because my eyes keep skittering over the pages and to the annotations. Unfortunately these books tease both my love of history and my ADD. Another thing I wasn’t too thrilled about with this edition was the conceit that the events in the book actually took place. While it’s obvious that Leslie Klinger knows his Victorian era, the snide comments about various characters and events were really not to my taste. Others might enjoy them though. Otherwise it’s a really lovely edition with numerous illustrations, references, and essays.
As for the novel itself, Dracula is a classic for a reason. It is incredibly atmospheric, occasionally the writing is very beautiful, especially when describing the scenic surroundings of the eerie story. Occasionally it is a little long-winded; some of the characters are perhaps slightly ridiculous, but for creepy, scary thrills, it is hard to beat this novel.
In conclusion, Dracula is an awesome book but this edition is probably more for people who are already very familiar (and perhaps have another edition) with the story and want a more in-depth look.
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