'Dracula' by Bram Stoker, first published by A.Constable & Co., 1897.
Vampire stories go back a very long way and have pervaded most cultures - from Africa, Arabia, Assyria and Greece, to Mexico, China, India and the Malays, besides the obvious areas in eastern Europe, i.e.Transylvania (Romania) and Slavonia (Russia, Poland, Czech). There have been many books on the subject, the earliest dated around the 1770’s, not to mention oral traditions and lore of ghosts, ghouls and unexplained phenomena going back even further to the 13th& 14thcenturies, all of this giving someone like Stoker in late Victorian times plenty of material to build on.
Dracula is a story told in fragments, consisting of letters and journals, principally by Jonathan Harker, who, as a lawyer, is sent to the Count to draw up documents for his relocation to London; and by Mina Murray (Harker’s fiancée), Lucy Westenra, Dr.Seward, and Abraham Van Helsing. Harker experiences strange things on the journey, and realises soon after arriving at the castle that he is a prisoner. His journal brings to the reader the fear and horror of his situation, especially after he discovers the true nature of his host. First Lucy, then Mina, become victims of the fiend, and the remainder of the party, led by Van Helsing, are faced with the task of tracking Dracula to his lair by sailing to the port town of Varna, and inland by carriage high into the Carpathian mountains.
Bibliophiles will savour the style, scale, atmosphere, and latent symbology of this Gothic novel; its sense of immediacy and pace, its graphic beauty and graphic horror, as well as the grand underlying themes of religion (Van Helsing as the priest / physician / guide), gender identity, desire, sexual terror (domination and possession of both male and female by an alien force), sadism, social and psychic disturbance, and of course, the ‘supernatural’ – all of which were themes relevant to the late Victorian period. The final scene is a sizzling, scintillating and pulsating climax - the race against the sunset - when the demon is finally vanquished.
The book received good reviews in its day, and went into paperback in 1901, eclipsing the success of earlier authors such as Mary Shelley and Poe, and spawning many off-shoots, especially after the advent of ‘film’. My advice is to forget most of the movies, and read the original, bringing your own imagination to the fore.
This is undoubtedly one of the best books of horror fiction ever written.
Supernatural by Graham Hancock, Century, 2005.
From 1902 to 1986 the accepted interpretation of world “Rock Art” was led by such figures as Emile de Cartailhac, Abbé Henri Breuil and André Leroi-Gourhan, until the latter’s death, when no new ruling personality emerged to take his place. Enter Prof. David Lewis-Williams of the University of Witwatersrand’s Rock Art Research Institute. Turning tradition on its head, he proposed, after exhaustive research, and consulting existing descendants of the San Bushmen, that the paintings were not merely a record of hunting trips, and waking life exploits, but were sacred records of what they experienced while in trance and interacting with the spirit world (the neuropsychological theory), and that the caves were portals to the ‘otherworld’ of spirits and deities.
This is Part 2 of Hancock’s book of 6 Parts, and covers around 270 pages alone. The entire book spans 756 pages, excluding the 90-odd page index and notes, and takes the reader from Rock Art and archaeology into the realms of psychoactive drugs, shamanic culture, therianthropy, entoptic phenomena, UFO’s, studies on DNA, and myriad other avenues where he asks questions such as: “When and how did Mankind first discover and record the use of hallucinogens, psychotropic drugs and trance states? What part did these experiences play in his psychological development and formation of religion? and: Why has society moved away from these practices to a more structured, scientific view of our Universe and the experiences it contains?”
The material covered in this book is vast, and Hancock himself has bravely tested all of the drugs concerned, under controlled circumstances, in order to experience the ‘reality’ of the ‘inner world’- ayahuasca, ibogaine, psilocybin (found in mushrooms), and DMT (Dimethyltryptamine – tryptamine being the basis of most psychoactive drugs). The findings are quite literally ‘mind-expanding’. He discovered worlds inhabited by therianthropes (half-man/half-animal), elves, faeries, snakes, reptiles, and alien intelligences, some benevolent, others distinctly frightening. He quotes pioneers in the field such as William James, Aldous Huxley, Albert Hoffman and Dr.Rick Strassman (Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico), who has studied laboratory-controlled experiments with volunteers on DMT, the so-called ‘spirit molecule’.
The common thread throughout is that pre-historic man and modern man experience exactly the same things after ingesting these substances (the rock art is proof), which seems to suggest that the human brain has been ‘hard-wired’ in a certain way by a superior intelligence. The final chapters deal with finding out why. It is conjectured that our DNA codes are a way of preserving and passing on information through the millenniums until such time that the host (i.e.Humankind) can find a way of interpreting and downloading it, which is a truly fascinating concept.
The book is quite long-winded in places, and tends to be repetitious, but is well worth the effort and becomes more and more fascinating the deeper you read. Hancock once again goes where no man has gone before.
The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield (1994)
Take an adventure set in the remote jungles of Peru, the quest for a forgotten manuscript which is being suppressed by that government, a few very close scrapes at the hands of the military; mix it all up with nine steps to spiritual enlightenment, and you have "The Celestine Prophecy".
The basic premise of the book is that Humankind has gone through various stages of growth and development, rather like a spiritual version of 'snakes and ladders', with spiritual growth being the 'ladders' and war being the 'snakes'. The book claims (like many others) that we, in the third millennium, have entered the stage where Mankind will be drawn together intuitively in a spiritually collective sense, and that the above manuscript holds the original nine insights in order for this to be achieved.
I wasn't quite sure whether to treat it as a novel or a New Age motivational guide to spirituality; so it must be both. But this is the very rock on which it perishes. Can we really believe its proposition of "a human World transformed by conscious spiritual evolution" when the seekers of this knowledge have shots ringing out around their ears for most of the book? I don't think so. But that is not to say there is nothing to be gained from it.
A World in harmony is a grand concept, as well as individual and collective spiritual growth, but all the 'chance' meetings of those who lead you to the next of the nine 'insights' takes synchronicity to extremes and becomes rather far-fetched, and it all becomes something of a modern-day mystical Pilgrim's Progress/Siddhartha (two infinitely better books) which ultimately leads nowhere, not even to a real manuscript.
Redfield's attempts at fusing Christian religion and Creation, with Evolution, fails, despite some clever attempts at philosophical jousting, theorising and counter-argument. Weak dialogue, weak 'plot' and bad construction put the final nails in the coffin of this unbelievable adventure. But you can decide all this for yourself.
I suspect Dan Brown gleaned an idea or two from James Redfield, and made a far more creative job of it.
Back in time to…“The Tutankhamun Deception” by Gerald O’Farrell, Sidgwick & Jackson, 2001, (204 pp.)
On November 29, 1922, Egyptologist Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon revealed to an expectant world the tomb of the child-Pharaoh Tutankhamun, which has gone down in history as the most famous archaeological discovery ever. The sheer mass of riches was mind-boggling and was a guarantee of sustained media interest for a long time to come, as well as a ticket to fame and fortune for the two shrewd opportunists.
But according to the author of this book the whole thing was a hoax, the tomb and its treasury having been discovered and entered through a secret doorway by Carter, perhaps as early as 1914.
This is a bold claim to make, but when presented with the evidence put forward, including photographs of the concealed entrance (clearly ‘plastered up’), and other sections of wall which were painted over, but which don’t match the quality of the original motif alongside, as well as Carter’s own admission of having entered the tomb prior to November 29, one is left in no doubt that the pair had been overwhelmed by greed, ambition and lust in the highest degree, and had had to ‘stage’ the official discovery after having ransacked the tomb and damaging some artefacts in the process.
The author digs deep into the history pertaining to “The Valley of the Kings”, and his attempts to explain the significance of Tutankhamun include the theory that he may have been killed due to his support of the ‘Aten’ religion (monotheistic), the bloodlines of Egypt and Israel being linked through Moses, who, it is conjectured, was actually the Pharaoh Akhenaten.
Tutankhamun, it is again conjectured, may have been the Biblical ‘Christ’, whose murder and burial were prophesied. Add to this the dreaded ‘curse’ which it is believed claimed Carnarvon’s life, links with Sigmund Freud who was a proponent of the Moses/Pharaoh connection (and who also died in mysterious circumstances), the Rothschilds, the British government, Greek mythology, and deliberately hidden manuscripts which could “rock the world”, and what started as a fairly straightforward archaeological and historical exposé morphs into some kind of Grand Conspiracy Theory. It all becomes rather messy and confusing, and the book ends quite abruptly, but for Conspiracy Theory buffs it makes extremely fertile ground for the imagination indeed.
“Diana – Death of a Goddess” by David Cohen, Century, 2004.
I had read this book about a month before the sensational pictures were published on the front page of The Times (Oct.4), showing the four occupants of the car, face on, just seconds before the crash.
It is now clearly evident that the “paparazzi” were harassing the car as it careered into the Alma underpass, and that the “bright flash” which was witnessed was probably a very powerful camera flash used by them. So how much room is there left to say, as Mohamed Fayed insists, that it was all set up in order to do away with Diana and Dodi?
David Cohen goes to great length to try and uncover many of the details which have been kept from the public up until now, and follows up leads from copious witnesses and informers, many speaking on condition of anonymity, who claim inside information on the events surrounding the fatal accident, and the possible motives supporting it, if it was orchestrated.
If Cohen’s claims are correct: 1) The French Police were extremely inept, ignoring many eye-witness accounts, and mixing up the blood samples of Henri Paul, 2) The tunnel was re-opened only 90 minutes after the crash, thereby destroying evidence such as skid-marks, debris etc.., 3) The speed-camera photo which caught the car as it sped into the tunnel, disappeared, 4) Cocaine was found in Diana’s handbag, 5) Dodi’s cell-phone went missing , 6) The presence of the white Fiat Uno in the tunnel caused the Mercedes to crash whose driver, paparazzo James Andanson, (purportedly a police informer and mole), was later found burned to death in a car in the middle of a field 7) Diana’s ambulance took 1hr.40mins. to reach hospital, etc..etc…
Cohen writes methodically, logically, and in detail, and steers clear of emotion and hype. The book is written in ‘report’ format, while at the same time asking probing questions as to the validity of the official lines of inquiry, which seem most definitely to have tried to ‘hush up’ much of the evidence.
But one of the startling claims he explores in some detail, and which unfortunately detracts from his reasoned analysis into the accident, is the involvement of Prince Charles in a secret cult - The Order of the Solar Temple - which may have been involved in the crash that killed Princess Grace in Monaco in 1982, amongst other high-profile personalities. It just keeps getting curiouser and curiouser.
“All Quiet on the Western Front”by Erich Maria Remarque, Putnam, 1929.
This is a book recounting the harrowing and bloody conditions of the trench warfare that existed between French Allied and German forces in World War One – The Great War, “The War to End All Wars”, with estimates of 10 million having died, and countless others left maimed and psychologically distressed for life.
It is written in a purposely understated, diarised, almost nonchalant style, which somehow achieves great effect in putting into stark relief the conditions of deprivation, de-sensitization, depredation, terror, squalor and utter hopelessness that these men lived through, day by day, week by week, in muddy trenches filled with the blown-apart corpses of friend and foe alike. It can be read at pace, but with great trepidation and caution, as one wonders what horrors the next page will hold, at the same time questioning what possible aspirations can persuade sentient, intelligent beings such as ourselves to stoop to the level of taking life wantonly and with little regard to the consequences, and for what purpose?
The book is at once an indictment and a dire warning of the utmost import for humanity at large, and makes us challenge the validity of our so-called patriotism in taking up arms to protect ‘King and Country’. It questions our morals and makes us search out the very essence of our nature, half-beast, half-divine, and forces us to seek answers as to how we are to find a balance.
Ironically, Remarque was of French extraction, but fought for the Germans at the age of eighteen when he left school. He lost his mother and all his friends in the war, and emerged destitute. This book is his tribute to the young men of his generation who went on to live friendless, embittered lives in its aftermath. It explores the central themes of true comradeship and the fate of the generation that followed.
“We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial – I believe we are lost.” (p.137).
“He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front. He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come.” (p.320-final page).
Back in time to…
“Chocolat” by Joanne Harris, Doubleday/Black Swan, 1999.
When stranger Vianne Rocher arrives with her daughter in the sleepy rural town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes (pop.200), ‘on the wind of the carnival’, little do the townsfolk realise how their lives will change. She sets about opening ‘La Céleste Praline - Chocolaterie Artisanale’ on the first day of Lent no less, and this throws Pére Reynaud of the church opposite, into a spin.
As the shop becomes the new hub for the sharing of the latest gossip, as well as leading his flock astray into the way of sweet delights, Reynaud’s conscience is pushed to the limit. Then while fasting in the run-up to Easter, he loses it totally in his near-psychotic desire to destroy the source of all the trouble.
Along the way we meet folk such as Armande Voizin, the wizened, witch-like old lady who plays a pivotal role, Roux, the headman of the Gypsies who have set up camp by the river, and an assortment of villagers who all give the book a unique flavour, each one with their story to tell.
The book successfully (and with dark humour) explores the irony and hypocrisy of Church dogmatism versus free-spirited living, and Harris creates vivid characters existing within a taut, well constructed storyline.
One criticism however is the unforgivable and repetitive use of the cliché ‘..we made our way..’ which should be permanently expunged from any aspirant/established writer’s vocabulary.
Otherwise, the book is a fun, flavoursome and delightful little slab of escapism – recommended for chocaholics!
“The Woman in the Fifth” by Douglas Kennedy, Hutchinson (Random House), 2007.
Harry Ricks’ career hits skid row when he is involved in a scandal with one of his students, forcing him to leave America and hole up in a Paris ‘chambre de bonne’ and see where life leads him. With limited funds and no prospects he chances on a low-paying job as nightwatchman for some dodgy Turks, trying to make the best of it by using the time to finish a novel he is writing. He then attends a ‘salon’ held by Mme.Lorraine L’Herbert, where he falls into an ‘affaire de coeur’ with the mysterious and attractive Margit Kadar of the ‘Fifth Arrondissement’. Try as he might, he cannot avoid trouble with his employers and, through no fault of his own, lands up with a double murder charge on his head as people he comes into contact with die under strange circumstances. As he gets deeper and deeper into this desperate, living nightmare, he discovers there is no way out, and things start to get even more diabolical…
Is he losing his grip on reality? Or is there a rational explanation of the events that begin to unfold? Margit is not all she seems, as he discovers…
After a rather slow start, the book comes alive about a third of the way through, and builds its pace steadily, finally hooking the reader into a frenetic plot, some may say predictable, but with just enough twists and turns to keep you guessing.
While suffering a few ‘Americanisms’ in style and grammar along the way, and the ‘novel within a novel’ syndrome, these can easily be forgiven in what proves to be a highly entertaining, low-down, gritty and convincing read. Prepare yourself for the ride.