The Landslide by Stephen Gilbert

I was born on the coast, I live on the coast, I am always drawn to images of the coast, of sea and cliffs, and so this book caught my attention straight away. The title was unfamiliar, I had never heard of the author, but as I’d already read and loved one landslide story this year (The Feast by Margaret Kennedy), and as this landslide story was published by the wonderful Valancourt Books, I was full of confidence when I summoned a copy to read.

18843834‘Landslide’ was Stephen Gilbert’s first novel, published in 1943 but set some years earlier, set in a small, rural community on the coast of Ireland. Twelve year-old Wolfe lived with his parents in his grandfather’s house, and he was closer to his grandfather than his parents, who seemed unhappy, maybe with each other or maybe with their situation; and tells his own story, in a voice that is utterly engaging and rings completely true.

That story begins in spring, when, after a week of constant heavy rain, Wolfe woke in the night to hear a loud rumbling and to feel the house shake. He was frightened, he thought that it was the end of the world, but it stopped. And when he woke he learned that there had been a landslide.

Wolfe sets out, with his grandfather, to look at the changes that the landslide has wrought. What they find is extraordinary, not rocks and rubble, but lush new growth, trees and plants; it is as if the landslide has uncovered another world ….

The man and the boy are captivated and excited by what they find; Wolfe’s narrative captures that perfectly, and it is full of wide-eyed wonder and earnest desire to communicate what he has seen.

And then there is something even more wonderful, more fantastical: Two creatures, a dragon and a sea monster, running and playing on the shoreline. They were beautiful, and Wolfe and his grandfather – he called him Gran’papa – were dazzled. They found that there was a whole world, there were other creatures, all buried until the landslide revealed them.

I was captivated.

Wolfe’s fearlessness and curiosity was lovely to see and, his grandfather felt the same emotions, tempered by the wisdom that age and experience brings. Together they explored, they found so much, and they learned to communicate with the creatures, and they learned of their history.

A small green creature, very much like a dog, followed Wolfe home. That caused comment in the village, and it provided some wonderfully light moments in a story that would turn darker. The villagers were fearful and they saw something evil, something to blame for bad luck, in what the landslide had uncovered.

The creatures, who had never learned to distrust humans, learned unhappy lessons.

Wolfe and Grand’papa were forced to make difficult choices. The relationship between them – close in spirit but distant in age – made that particularly interesting.

But it seemed the new world was doomed. The story played out to a bittersweet conclusion.

‘The Landslide’ is a wonderfully engaging story, rising in the first act to show what is possible, the potential of the world, and then falling in the second as ….. well, as things fell apart. I loved the rich description and the wonderful discoveries of the first act best; the second half of the story was more profound, but it played out just as I thought it would, it explored the themes I thought it would. It was entirely right, but there were no surprises.

In the end though, that didn’t matter; Wolfe’s testimony was utterly real, and this telling of his wonderful experiences held me from start to finish.

“Hell! Said the Duchess,” said Michael Arlen

hellsaidtheduchessCould you resist a title like that? I couldn’t!

The cover was striking, but it gave me no clue to the extraordinary mixture that I would find inside this little book from the 1930s. It began as a social satire, it showed signs of becoming a dystopian novel, it became a police procedural for quite some time, and as the end drew near it turned into a horror story.  All of the elements were familiar, but not all in the same book. The combination isn’t wholly successful, but the story is irresistible.

The duchess is Mary Dove, widow of the third Duke of Dove and Oldham, and she is as good as she is beautiful. She lived quietly, spending her days doing good works, and her evenings  at home with her companion, a poor relation taken under her wing. This was explained so carefully, with such loving detail, that I couldn’t help but be charmed by Mary Dove.

I found that her home was an oasis of calm in a deeply troubled London. In 1938 – a few years after this little book was published – the city was wracked by unemployment, social change, political demonstrations; and Winston Churchill, had been forced into a coalition with Oswald Moseley.

It was against this background that the ‘Jane the Ripper’ murders began: a killer believed to be female, young, and maybe foreign, was killing men in ways that became increasingly bizarre. Mary Dove became the prime suspect; it seemed ridiculous, it seemed impossible, but the evidence was compelling.

The police were incredulous; they thought there might be a communist plot to discredit the aristocracy, the wondered if the duchess might have been drugged or hypnotised, they wondered if something was amiss in their household. But they didn’t arrest her; instead they put arrangement in place for the duchess, who was deeply distressed by everything that was happening around her, to be sent to a nursing home where she would be carefully and discreetly guarded.

There was rioting in the streets when the news broke that the prime suspect had not been arrested.

Meanwhile, the police followed a trail of evidence to an extraordinary conclusion.

Hell! Said the Duchess is a very readable book. I’ve never read anything like it before, and I think it’s reasonably safe to say that I never will again. The contrast of the light social satire and the darker elements is oddly effective, and there are some lovely details along the way

But some elements work better than others, and I couldn’t help thinking of certain contemporaries of Michael Arlen’s who could have dealt with each aspect of the story a little better. Though I doubt that any of them could have handled them all, or thought of putting them all together to such fine effect.

I can’t say that this is a great book, but I can definitely say that it was a wonderful entertainment and that I’m very pleased that it’s back in print.

The Two Emilys by Sophia Lee

I must confess that, while I love the idea of early gothic novels, and while I have collected some intriguing titles, they are something I very rarely pick up to read.

I love the idea, but I need a little push to make me read. The Gothic Literature Classics Circuit Tour was just the push I needed.

I pulled out a lovely Valancourt Books edition of The Two Emilys by Sophia Lee.

A novel that was a huge success in 1798. An author described as ‘the mother of the gothic novel’ by Ann Radcliffe. And yet a book that was out of print for nearly two centuries.

Of course I was curious.

The story begins with Sir Edward Arden. A proud man, but a man with a good heart who would always do his duty. And so, when he was called to do his duty at the battle of Culloden, he set out to make provision for this two children: a son and a daughter.

It was with great reluctance that he took them to court, and left them in the care of his sister, Lady Lettingham. He knew that his sister would do her best for the children, but he also knew that she had been corrupted by the dubious values of the court.

Sure enough his children grew up to be beautiful, charming, and dissolute.

But both made good marriages, and to the son was born a daughter and to the daughter was born a son.

And so two of the three principals – the beautiful and virtuous Emily Arden, and the handsome and dashing Edward of Lennox – were on the stage.

All four parents hoped that the two would make a match, but of course it wasn’t going to be that simple.

Not in a gothic novel! Not after a mere ten pages! The story had moved swiftly and it wasn’t going to stop for anything!

Emily Arden was an heiress, expected to inherit a fortune from her grandmother. But her grandmother had a ward, Emily Fitzallen, and she was plotting to capture both the fortune and the marquis.

The third principal was on the stage!

From now on I shall refer to Good Emily and Evil Emily. That is how their creator portrays them, Emily Arden fair and simpering and Emily Fitzallen dark and glowering, and it does make things rather easier to follow.

When her grandmother dies Good Emily inherits her fortune and Evil Emily swears that she will have her revenge. And her Marquis.

All manner of events unfold.

The action moves from Ireland, to Scotland, to France, to Italy …

Almost everything you might think of happening in a gothic novel does happen.

Secret marriage! Bigamy! Dark castles! Imprisonment! Duels! Blackmail! Death!

It’s ridiculously improbable and desperately exciting!

But it was also hard work.

The pace was break-neck, and there was so little characterisation, so few descriptions, nothing but plot, plot, plot.

And the less that subtle moral overtones left little doubt as to how things would work out in the end,

The prose style was lovely, the drama was fantastic, but I felt the same way I did when somebody tells me an involved story about friends of theirs that I really don’t know.

I wanted to understand. I wanted to become involved. I couldn’t.

But I can understand The Two Emilys success, and I can see that it may well have influenced later writers.

And it makes me appreciate the way a latter generation of writers took the gothic novel forward all the more,

Curios by Richard Marsh

Two Victorian gentlemen, last seen around 1898, have been brought back into society by the wonderful Valancourt books.

Mr Tress and Mr Pugh. They were childhood friends and, most of the time, they are still friends, but they are also bitter rivals. Because, you see, they are both collectors of curios.

Two very different men. Mr Tress is rational and pragmatic, while Mr Pugh is emotional and impulsive.

And each is driven by that same compulsion: the acquisition and ownership of the finest, the rarest, the most desirable objects. Sometimes they work together very well, but more often than not each is trying to outmanoeuvre and outdo the other.

It’s a highly entertaining, and very believable, relationship.

Some weird and wonderful objects have passed through their hands: a poisoned pipe that seems to come to life when smoked, a 14th century severed hand bent on murder, a phonograph record on which a murdered woman speaks from beyond the grave….

And so each gentleman has some wonderful stories to tell. An extraordinary range of stories: there’s comedy, mystery and drama inside this dark little book.

I heard echoes of both Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan-Doyle, but I also heard a voice that was very distinctive.

The voice of a master storyteller. Richard Marsh can ratchet up the tension, and then he knows just when to let go. He can present a puzzle that you think in unsolvable, and then provide the perfect answer. He can pull you along on a journey that makes you forget everything else. And he can make you hold your breath, gasp, laugh cry…

I’m sorry to have heard the last of the stories of Mr Tress and Mr Pugh.

But as a collector myself (of books) I’m quite sure that more of Richard Marsh’s work will be finding its way on to my shelves before too long…

Miss Cayley’s Adventures by Grant Allen

Miss Cayley

Miss Cayley’s Adventures is definitely a Victorian novel. Like many works of the period it first appeared in serial form – part one was published in The Strand in March 1898.

But Lois Cayley is definitely not a typical Victorian heroine.

When her stepfather dies Miss Cayley finds herself alone in the world. The obvious thing to do would be to take her friends advice and find respectable employment as a teacher or in a hat-shop. Does she do that? No. Miss Cayley decides to step out into the world in search of adventure, grabbing whatever chances come her way.

The adventures come thick and fast, and the storytelling is quite wonderful.

Miss Cayley travels through Germany, Italy, Egypt and India. And in the course of her travels she becomes a lady’s maid, a bicycle saleswoman, a house-sitter, the proprietor of a secretarial agency and a journalist. She foils a robbery, wins a cycle race and rescues an injured mountaineer.

Yes, Miss Cayley is bright, articulate, athletic and extremely resourceful. She is also engaging from the first sentence and so very likeable.

Along the way Miss Cayley makes many friends, a few enemies and she meets her true love.

It is to save him from imprisonment for a crime that she finally return to London. Does Miss Cayley save the day? Is there a happy ending? Well what do you think?!

Miss Cayley’s Adventures provide wonderful entertainment from beginning to end!