Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Review: VARNEY THE VAMPIRE by Thomas Preskett Prest

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1845-47

Genre: Victorian sensation

Topics: vampires, fainting



I DARE you guys to read this book.

The Bannerworths are a wealthy English family. Then the daughter, Flora, is attacked by a creature she swears is a vampire. Quelle horreur! Meanwhile, a wealthy and mysterious stranger has moved into the neighborhood by the name of Sir Francis Varney. Could these two events be connected?

Varney the Vampire by Thomas Preskett Prest (sometimes attributed to James Malcolm Rymer, I don't know why) is basically your typical Victorian sensation novel, except with vampires. It reminded me of Lady Audley's Secret (review here), but it's worse. Soooooo much worse. There are conversations that run pointlessly in circles, endless scenes where nothing happens, action scenes with no purpose, and a lot of repetition and histrionics. It's absolutely terrible and SO DANG FUNNY. I think the nonsensical conversations between the Bannerworth brothers, which basically boil down to, "You don't know what you're talking about so shut it!" were my favorite. But the constantly repetitious dialog was also highly entertaining, as were statements like, "Even if I did see a vampire, and he bit me in the neck, I'd still tell him to his face he didn't exist!" Oooh la la, that guy is asking for it.

first page illustration of Varney the vampire
Um, do you think there might be some sexual connotations here?

Something you should know: this is a long-ass book. Just to give you an idea, the audio for Bram Stoker's Dracula is about 16 hours. Varney the Vampire is about 60 hours. Les Misérables is 63 hours. So basically this book is almost as long as Les Mis. But on the plus side, you can probably skim through more than half of it and be fine. Also, it's great to listen to on audiobook, because if your mind wanders, you don't have to worry about being too lost!

The problem is that even though this is a long-ass book, there are a lot of things that never pan out in it. For example, at the beginning of Varney, the characters think he's one of their long-dead ancestors, Marmaduke. But then it turns out he's Sir Francis Varney, and that storyline just kind of drops with no explanation. The author sets us up for scenes or events (see "If I did see a vampire," above), and these never come to anything, either. It's really kind of a mess.

As for the characters, they're all pretty stupid except for Varney. The poor guy! If he had any sense of self-preservation he'd stay away from the Bannerworths; but it's pretty obvious that he doesn't. Ye Olde Tortured Vampire.

Varney the Vampire is almost exactly like Dracula. Or perhaps I should say Dracula is almost exactly like Varney, since Varney predates Dracula by almost fifty years. I'm not saying Varney is the better book, buuuuuuuuuuuut Dracula's kind of a rip-off. As is Dark Shadows. Basically if you enjoy vampire fiction at all, you owe it to yourself to read this book, because it establishes all the tropes of the genre and it is HILARIOUS.

You might also be interested in:

Download Varney the Vampire by Thomas Preskett Prest at Librivox|Project Gutenberg

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Review: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM by William Shakespeare

Original Publication Date: 1590-1596 (written)

Genre: play, fantasy

Topics: love, beauty, fidelity, dreams, magic, gender, reality vs. fantasy


This was my first Shakespeare ever. Some friends warned me that is better experienced by seeing it on stage, but I found that reading the book and then watching the film adaptation worked well. I was able to go back, re-read and look online for definitions, which allowed to understand turns of phrase like “a mile without the town” or “come, recreant; come thou child”.

If I’d seen the play without reading it first I’d probably miss the images invoked by one of my favorite lines – Titania describing how she got the little Indian boy:
When we have laugh’d to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind
Reading the play also gave me the opportunity to witness what a marvelous “insulter” Shakespeare was. I'd heard rumors, but now I've seen it for myself and am very much tempted to memorize a few... just in case the opportunity to use them presents: “You minimus, of hind’ring knot-grass made”, “O me, you juggler, you canker-blossom, you thief of love!”, “Farewell, thou lob of spirits”.

I haven’t said much about the plot because it became a bit secondary compared to the words (that’s why you have re-reads, right?). Next time around I’ll pay more attention to the social comment on the balance of power in relationships or the loss of individual identity, but just this once, let me appreciate the language alone.
Ay me, for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth.
Lysander says this to calm Hermia, after her father forbade them to marry and the King threatened her with death if she disobeyed. Lysander’s basically saying that for as long as there has been true love, there have been difficulties, and I found that strangely comforting.

Bottom & Co.’s play: loved it. How very meta-fictional of Shakespeare (or maybe it was a common gimmick at the time and I’m giving him more credit than he deserves), and how funny their keenness to make sure the audience was not scared by the lion (it’s just a man playing a lion!), or of the scene where Pyramus gets killed:
(…) and for the more better assurance, tell them that I Pyramus am not Pyramus but Bottom the weaver: this will put them out of fear.
Watching the 1999 the movie adaptation after reading the play was a good idea. I not only understood better the comings and goings of the characters, but it was also fun seeing how often the actors used a tone different from the one I used when reading by myself.

Overall a great introduction to Shakespeare and a good starting point: a fun, quick read that still allowed me to appreciate why the Bard's language has been delighting readers and audiences for centuries.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012


More Sherlockiania for you all today! I read about this movie while perusing the internet this weekend. Sherlock Holmes Baffled was made in 1900 and is the first film to feature the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Why on earth this is a "Sherlock Holmes" film, I don't know. He doesn't solve anything! But I do like how, after the robber first disappears, Sherlock is just like, "Oh well *shrug*" and carries on. WTF.

Supposedly Sherlock Holmes is the most featured character in film, although I think Dracula probably gives him a run for his money.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: CARNACKI THE GHOST FINDER by William Hope Hodgson

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1914 for the original collection; between 1910 and '12 for the individual short stories.

Genre: mystery

Topics: ghosts, supernatural


Thomas Carnacki is a ghost expert--think Van Helsing, but with ghosts instead of vampires. Occasionally he shows up at a pub and tells this group of blokes about a particularly interesting--quote unquote--adventure, and then sends them on their way and they're like, "Wow, do we know that guy?" (Haha, I'm kidding. They do seem to know who he is. The framing was just got to me after a while.)

There are six short stories in this collection, and honestly the first three weren't that interesting to me. Carnacki isn't a particularly compelling character, and the ghost stories weren't creepy at all.

Also, when someone goes somewhere to investigate a haunting, and then it turns out to BE a haunting (!), that doesn't provide a lot of narrative tension or surprise. The stories in Carnacki the Ghost Finder reminded a bit of Hound of the Baskervilles (of which I am not a fan) but with less personality and no logical explanation. What are the rules of these spirits? What makes Carnacki more capable of getting of them than anyone else? I was considering bailing on this collection, but decided to stick with it for one more story. I'm glad I did because the second half of Carnacki the Ghost Finder was much better than the first.

My favorite story in the collection was "The Horse of the Invisible," which is a terrible title (all the titles are terrible). There were a lot of elements that made this particular story stand out to me: for one, the haunting itself was really interesting. It's tied to a family curse where every first-born female of the Higgins family is haunted and eventually killed by an invisible horse between the time she starts courting and the time she's married. Because there hasn't been a first-born daughter for seven generations, the Higginses consider the story merely a legend; but with their daughter Mary being tormented by "gobbling horse's neighs" in the night (which definitely sounds annoying), they're prepared to take it more seriously and call in Carnacki to help. Another thing I loved about "The Horse of the Invisible" is that this is the first story where Carnacki uses photography to help him solve the mystery. I have this thing about ghost photography; I find it fascinating even when it's clearly a hoax. William Hope Hodgson does a great job of describing the photographs Carnacki takes so that you can imagine exactly how creepy they are. And finally, the solution to this particular mystery isn't entirely supernatural. I approve of this.

I also really liked "The Searcher of the End House," because it was all about Carnacki living with his mom. Amazingly enough, it turns out Carnacki's house is haunted! But he didn't figure this out until his mom start bugging him. Detective, investigate thyself. This haunting was super-complicated and the solution was totally random--and also not entirely supernatural.

Carnacki the Ghost Finder isn't the greatest short story collection ever, but it has its moments. In the end I felt like it was worth listening to because of the strong finish.

You might also be interested in:
"Thomas Carnacki, King of the Supernatural Detectives," at The Guardian

Download Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Guest Review: THE RETURN OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Arthur Conan Doyle

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1903-04

Genre: mystery

Topics: detective, short stories

Review by Liz Paulk:

A collection of more Sherlock Holmes stories, although this anthology features the resurrection of Holmes after Doyle had tried to kill him off in his earlier book. Due to such a public outcry from the fans of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was forced to bring him back to life and the first story handles that, although it’s not graceful in any way. (Kinda fumbles it, if you ask me, but there may have been reasons for that on Doyle’s side of things.)

Doyle had been writing Sherlock Holmes stories for a while, and although that character was amazingly well liked (and almost a celebrity in his own right), Doyle had got fed up with him and wanted to move on to other projects. However, when Holmes was “killed” in an earlier story, there was a huge public outcry and Doyle felt that he had to bring him back from the dead. This was easier to do than would be expected, as the story wherein Holmes dies is a bit wish-washy about the details of his death, and so it wasn’t that hard to provide details that would prove he was alive in other ways.

So Holmes arrives back in London to meet his friend and business partner Dr. Watson, and then the typical high jinks ensure. As always, a fun read with lots of clues and red herrings sprinkled throughout to make the cases each alluring to the reader to work out. I also noticed that Holmes is starting to get bit more openly grumpy in this book: he snaps at Watson, uses sarcasm and is generally a bit snarky. (You know, he reminded me of Doc Martin in the BBC TV series of the same name. And also House, MD, which of course takes us back to Holmes.)

This bad-tempered side of Holmes comes out more clearly and more defined in this anthology, and I am wondering if it’s because Doyle was grumpy about having to resurrect him when he had thought he was done with that character. (Doyle was an interesting person, in and of himself, but I’ll travel down that rabbit hole another day. In the meantime, here is the official website of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Literary Estate… http://www.sherlockholmesonline.org/).

An interesting parallel to this is that another book that I am currently reading (“The Devil and Sherlock Holmes” by David Grann) is non-fiction and one of its chapters details the curious tale of how one of the world’s foremost scholars of Sherlock Holmes died a suspicious death after he started to get involved in the large stash of Doyle’s personal papers which was supposed to go to the British Museum, but somehow (through family machinations) ended up on the auction block at Sothebys. (The papers – the important ones, at least – did get to the British Museum in the end, but it was a lengthy journey.) So – even after Doyle is long dead and his characters are historical icons, there is still mystery surrounding the whole topic.

I made a list of all the Sherlock Holmes works that Doyle produced, and thought it might be a fun project to work my way through them in a laid-back non anal-retentive way (if I can). Here is the list so far:

Sherlock Holmes Novels:
  • A Study in Scarlet (1887)
  • The Sign of Four (1890)
  • The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902)
  • The Valley of Fear (1914-1915)
Collections of Sherlock Holmes short stories:
  • Adventures of SH (1981-1892)
  • Memoirs of SH (1892-1893) – SH killed off here
  • Return of SH (1903-1904) – SH resurrected here
  • Reminiscences of SH (including His Last Bow) (1908-1913 and 1917)
  • Case Book of SH (1921-1927)

You might also be interested in:

Download The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Curiosities: ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE Newsreel Footage

Did you ever imagine you'd get the chance to see Arthur Conan Doyle talk about Sherlock Holmes? You can! Care of Internet Archive, this newsreel footage from 1927 shows Doyle speaking about his beloved character, as well as his interest in spiritualism.

I love this! I'm surprised by the Scottish accent for some reason. He also seems much more bouncy than I'd imagined him.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: CAPTAIN BLOOD by Rafael Sabatini

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1922

Genre: adventure

Topics: pirates, politics, freedom, love


With a name like Peter Blood, a man has limited but awesome career choices. He could become a soldier, a doctor, a rebel, a killer, or an outlaw. Somehow this Peter Blood manages to be all five.

After soldiering under De Ruyter, Blood decides to put his bachelor's degree in medicine to good use (bachelor's degree! Education has really gone down in quality since the 17th century, people) and settle to a quiet life in Somerset as a physician. But fate has more adventures in store for our high-strung hero; after attending to a rebel wounded during the Monmouth Rebellion, Blood is arrested and accused of being a traitor. He's sentenced to death, but the sentence is commuted to slavery in Barbados. Blah blah blah, he captures a Spanish ship and becomes a pirate captain!

Honestly, I didn't enjoy Captain Blood as much as Scaramouche (review here). I didn't dislike it, but neither did I want to LIVE in it they way that I did Scaramouche. This mostly isn't the book's fault at all. I was listening to the Librivox version, and it wasn't the best production. I know they're volunteers and all, but it made listening to Captain Blood difficult at times. This novel definitely deserves a re-recording. Part of it also had to do with the fact that I had a lot of interest in and knowledge of Revolutionary France going into Scaramouche; my familiarity with the time period of Captain Blood (1680's, according to Wikipedia) is sketchy at best.

Aside from that, though, remember how I was just a tad touchy about the women in Scaramouche? Well, when it comes to female characters, Captain Blood is even worse. There's basically one female character, Arabella, and she's annoying as all heck. Basically her entire purpose in the book is to put the screws to Captain Blood and make him feel like a heel for being the most awesome pirate captain who ever liiiiiiiiived.

But there was also a lot to like in Captain Blood, namely: Peter Blood! How could you not love someone who 1., has an Irish accent; 2. speaks approximately a dozen languages; 3. quotes poetry; 4. stands up for his principles; and 5. tells hanging judges, generals, governors, and pirates to kiss his ass LIKE A BOSS.

like a boss

Another great thing about Peter Blood is that he gets all broody when Arabella doesn't pay attention to him. I love it when he gets all broody! Gah that Arabella, what is wrong with her?

So while I don't think Captain Blood is quite as good Scaramouche, it's still quite good. You should read it, and I will definitely keep reading Sabatini's work (except maybe not on Librivox).

You might also want to read:
Alex's review of Captain Blood here.
My review of Scaramouche here.

Download Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini at Project Gutenberg|Librivox

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Review: A Damsel in Distress

Original Publication Date:  1919

Genre:  Humor, Romance

Topics:  England, Mistaken Identity, Comedy of Manners

Review:  PG Wodehouse is most famous for his Jeeves & Wooster stories, but those are not the only books he ever wrote!  He also wrote other books with light humor and bumbling aristocrats and very capable butlers that did not star either Jeeves or Wooster.  A Damsel in Distress is one of those books.

George Bevan is bored of life - what more is there for him to do when he's a brilliantly rich and successful music composer before age 30?  He's lonely, but all the women he knows are (of course) dull, and he is completely over women.

And then one day, he's in a taxicab and a beautiful woman breathlessly jumps in and asks him to hide her.  He realizes that perhaps he's not completely over women, agrees to help her, and after knocking a chubby man's hat off and causing a scene in the middle of London, he saves her and then loses sight of her without learning her name.

But Bevan is an intrepid man, and he learns that he has fallen in love with Lady Maud Marshmoreton.  He tracks her down to a rural hamlet, and then there's a lot of mistaken identities, and finally, everything works out just as it should.

This book was fun to read, but it wasn't quite as snortingly, laugh-out-loud funny as many of Wodehouse's other books.  Wodehouse is great at comedic scenes, but not (in my opinion) that great at creating particularly differentiated or memorable characters.  You read one of his books, greatly enjoy it, and then promptly forget the details of it.  But that's what makes them so easy to read over and over, I think.

This book, though, was a bit light on the situational comedy.  It was there, of course - there were scenes that were funny.  But George Bevan was also quite moody some of the time, and it seemed like the characters weren't quite as happy and funny as they could have been, and that dampened my enjoyment somewhat.  It's all very good to laugh at bumbling aristocrats when they are happy and good-natured, but when they are sad and feel trod upon, it's not nearly as fun.  And George Bevan was just too perfect.  Wooster is great because he's really well-meaning but cant really do much of anything right.  Whereas Bevan does pretty much everything right, and is pretty dull because of it.  I much prefer Wooster and all the tongue-in-cheek humor that spills from the pages of those books.

This is an entertaining book, and probably perfect for a flight or a day at the beach or when you're in the mood for a rom-com, but just can't commit to Meg Ryan.  It's light and fun, but just not as fun as you may expect from Wodehouse.