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It’s Vampire Fiction, but not as you know it…but not as you know it

I don’t know about you, but I really miss the days when Vampire stories were actually frightening. My very favourite Vampire experience of all time was seeing Coppola’s “Dracula” at the cinema with a friend who, part-way into the film, passed out cold in his seat. (It turned out we’d accidentally brought a hemaphobic to see a Vampire film. He was finally finished off by the transfusion scene, and spent the rest of the evening slumped peacefully across his girlfriend’s welcoming bosom, where we left him because we assumed they were just, you know…busy…and she was furious with us for not helping us prop him up and bring him round so she could enjoy the rest of the film, and wouldn’t speak to any of us for weeks.)

Anyway. As I remember it, that was the last time anyone I knew was properly frightened by a Vampire story. After that, it all went downhill. We got Vampires who live off rats and chickens (Interview with the Vampire), Vampire blood-banks (“Blade”), Vampire Soya protein (“True Blood”), Vampires who just drink a little bit from consenting-adult lovers in return for awesome sex (“Undead and Unwed”), Vampires who only eat free-range meat from sustainable sources (“Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries”). We’ve had Vampires who can go out in daylight and sleep wherever they damn well please; we’ve had Vampires who never sleep, and pass the lonely night-hours in protecting frail humans from spiders and composing musical masterpieces. We’ve had Vampires who go to High School, Vampires who work in hospitals, Vampires who go to church, Vampires you can take home to meet your parents, Vampires who want to marry you and spend Eternity raising rug-rats for your werewolf boyfriend to fall in love with.

My mental picture of how it would be to go to bed with Edward Cullen

Admittedly, there have been a few moments of cinematic brilliance – like the creepy magic that was “Let The Right One In”. For the written word, however…maybe not so much. After a decade of Edward and Stefan throwing themselves artistically around the place and declaring themselves to be monsters because, um, well, just because, okay? – I was starting to wonder if there was ever, ever, ever going to be a decent Vampire book ever again. “Vampire” was becoming official shorthand for “cool good-looking Emo guy with a fast car and an expensive wardrobe”. Even Cronin’s “The Passage” – which is ace, and which I reviewed here – is still far more like a Zombie story than it is like a Vampire one.

And now, there’s “Blood Fugue”, and my faith in the literary possibilities of Vampires has been restored.

In the isolated community of Hobson’s Valley, Jimmy Kerrigan lives a reclusive outdoorsy existence growing vegetables, directing hikers and obsessively making dream-catcher things he refers to as “binders”. Although he doesn’t know it, he’s the heir to a long line of vampire hunters who can access the power of Lethe, giving them the strength they need to combat “the Fugue” – a disease of the blood native to Hobson’s Valley, which gives its victims a periodic insatiable craving for the bodily fluids of others. As the story unfolds, Jimmy discovers his destiny and undertakes a desperate battle with a huge outbreak of Fugue, threatening to overwhelm his valley and escape into the wider world.

Like all the best genre fiction, “Blood Fugue” takes what’s been done before, and mixes it up a bit. Dreamy misfit with unsuspected Speshul destiny? Check. Teenage morality play? Check. Isolated community with lax law-enforcement practices? Check. Wandering foreigners? Check. Vignettes of ordinary townies being overwhelmed by seductive Vampires? Check. Beautiful exotic females? Check.

It’s just the rules

This isn’t a criticism, by the way; I’m saying this with deep and utter admiration. The brilliance of “Blood Fugue” isn’t the new stuff it brings (although the Eco-War aspect of the story is definitely a lovely bonus). It’s the life it brings to the old stuff; the way it makes it all seem new and exciting and surprising, even though you kinda know what’s coming up next. The writing is pacey, punchy and super-tight, drawing you into a story that’s both mythic and believable.

One aspect of the story I particularly love is the whole notion that the Vampires – or Fugues – don’t actually know they’re infected. When the blood-lust comes over them, they experience a kind of mental black-out (I suppose the concept I’m reaching for here is fugue state, ho hum) that lasts for the whole of their feeding episode. When it passes, they have no memory of where they’ve been, or what it was they were doing. The Fugue state comes and goes, waxing and waning according to the mysterious rhythms of the disease – so the Fugues could be absolutely anyone, at any moment. It’s a great rendition of the Vampire legend, a whole new way to play with the horror of discovering you’re secretly a monster.

I also love the setting of Hobson’s Valley. I’m a Brit, so I believe in the existence of off-grid American small towns the way Icelanders believe in elves. I honestly don’t know if this plays equally well for US audiences, or if it’s just one of those annoying Hollywood tropes no-one seems to be able to get rid of. But – having loved the early chapters of “Dracula”, where we’re basically roaming around the Carpathians and having the locals wave things in our faces and make mysterious threats – I was thrilled to read a Vampire story that didn’t feel the need to drag everything into the bright lights of the city.

One of the paradoxes of the Vampire myth is why on earth we, as a species, find the myth of creatures who basically only want to eat us so incredibly sexy. (And there’s no getting away from it; we do. Look me in the eye and tell me you think Mina Harker was actually happy with Jonathan after she’d tried Dracula on for size. No, I thought not.) Again, the recent trend in fiction has been to take all the horror out of it, creating romances which are quite literally bloodless. If Edward and Bella’s chaste face-stroking had you wanting to clobber both of them around the head with (for example) a marble rolling-pin, this book is definitely the antidote you’ve been waiting for.

Although a part of me still sort of loves that this exists

There’s nothing dainty or romantic about D’Lacey’s Vampiric encounters; they’re hot and horrifying all at once. The Fugues are looking for every human fluid they can get their tendrils into – blood, piss, menstrual fluid, breast-milk – and they use sexual pleasure as an anaesthetic to prevent their victims realising they’re being harvested. One reviewer said they will “make you cringe and wonder what kind of twisted person wrote this tale”, which I thought was overcooking it a bit (maybe this says more about me than it does about “Blood Fugue”, I don’t know). But d’Lacey’s writing is definitely sexy, terrifying and very, very visceral.

So, was there anything I didn’t like about this book? Maybe just a couple of things. Firstly, the rendering of the Jimenez family grated at times. The Jimenezes are Spanish, so it’s perfectly fair that, when they’re speaking English, their dialogue is stilted and formal. But when they’re talking to each other (presumably in their mother tongue), surely that formality should disappear? Phrases like “How could you oversleep like this, Jose?” or “I really think that if we keep a strong pace we might be back by tomorrow night” felt a bit like that weird movie trope where characters speak English in a foreign accent to avoid the need for subtitles.

Secondly, and after loving every single page of the build-up – I was sort of bored by the big all-action climax. This isn’t a reflection on the writing, which is as tight, charged and evocative as the rest of the book. It’s just that…well, let’s be honest; when the outcome isn’t really in doubt (and generally speaking, heroes don’t fail), it’s hard to be utterly gripped by the details of exactly who chopped off which bit of whom, using what bony protrusion. End-of-level bosses are great for video games, but they don’t really work in fiction.

“The outcome of this battle has already been decided by the author. Want to skip this part and go get a pizza?”

Ah, I’m nit-picking; this book is just glorious. I read it over Hallowe’en week, and I was absolutely hooked from the first page. It’s a fantastic read for this time of year, when everything gets colder and darker, and the idea of monsters starts to feel a whole lot more likely. The cover endorsement, from Stephen King (Stephen King!!! As an author, how unbelievably excellent must that feel?) reads simply, “Joseph D’Lacey rocks”. And, based on the evidence of “Blood Fugue”, he certainly does.

You can buy “Blood Fugue” from Amazon for the extremely reasonable price of £6.74.

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Dear lovely readers,

Since I posted my article “Fifty Things That Annoy Me About Fifty Shades Of Grey”, it’s become by far my most popular blog entry. Lots of you have mentioned it in various forums, tweeted about it, shared it on Facebook and generally spread the word. Thank you all so much – you’re all fabulous, and I’m delighted everyone’s enjoyed it so much.

Anyway, I’m thrilled to announce that thanks to your fantastic response, I was commissioned to write a whole e-book on the subject. “Lighter Shades of Grey: a (very) Critical Reader’s Guide to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’” covers the whole of the magnificent folly that is “Fifty Shades of Grey”, chronicling the many, many more things that annoy me about it. If you’d like to find out how many times Ana uses the phrase “Oh my”, how often her lip is bitten, whether Christian Grey is a diagnosable psychopath and exactly how he gets away with a kidnapping, it’s available right now from e-book distributors on both sides of the Atlantic, from prices starting at £1.49 / $2.34.

Thank you again for your support, your tweets, your links and your many, many kind comments.

And if you were just wanting to read the original blog entry that started it all, below is a copy of the original post.

After weeks of dithering, it finally dawned on me that I can’t blog about genre fiction and not face up to the existence of the Genre Fiction hit of the year. On the other hand…well, frankly, I don’t want to face up to the existence of the Genre Fiction hit of the year. It annoys me. I wish it wasn’t there.

So I decided to read it until I’d found fifty things that annoyed me, and then stop. Here’s my list.

1. We meet our heroine.
“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal…Kate is my roommate, and she has chosen today of all days to succumb to the flu.”

A bad start.

a. In the scheme of things, bad hair is not a problem. Please try to be less self-absorbed.

b. I seriously doubt that Kate got flu just to spite you.

2. Anastasia arrives at Christian Grey’s headquarters and takes the elevator.
I walk into the enormous – and frankly intimidating – glass, steel and white sandstone lobby. Behind the solid sandstone desk, a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman smiles pleasantly at me…[after taking the lift] I’m in another large lobby – again all glass, steel and white sandstone. I’m confronted by another desk of sandstone and another young blonde woman dressed impeccably in black and white.

a. It is not possible to create the impression of luxurious yet understated opulence simply by over-using the word “sandstone”.

b. Maybe you just got in the lift and forgot to press the button.

3. Anastasia waits outside Christian’s office to start the interview
“To be honest, I prefer my own company, reading a classic British novel, curled up in a chair in the campus library.”

In literary terms, there is no such thing as a “classic British novel”. There are Romantic novels, picaresque novels, High Victorian novels, epistolary novels, Utopian novels, satirical novels, Condition-of-England novels…but not “classic British novels”.

Therefore, merely by the use of the phrase “classic British novel”, you have entirely undermined the impression you were intending to create by the use of the phrase “classic British novel”.

4. Anastasia speculates on what Christian Grey will be like.
“Judging from the building, which is too clinical and modern, I guess Grey is in his forties: fit, tanned and fair-haired to match the rest of the personnel.”

a. A more logical way to estimate his age would be to consider the likely length of time it would take to reach the position of CEO of a multinational conglomerate, make the working assumption that he attended college, then adding the likely length of career to his likely graduation age. There is little or no point trying to estimate people’s ages based on the architectural style of the building they happen to be in at the time.

b. Really successful businesspeople almost never hire people based on how much said prospective employees resemble them.

5. Further speculation on Christian Grey’s hiring practices.
“Perhaps Mr Grey insists on all his employees being blonde. I’m wondering idly if that’s legal, when the office door opens and a tall, elegantly dressed, attractive African-American man with short dreads exits. I have definitely worn the wrong clothes.”

a. Between 2% and 4% of the world’s population are naturally blonde. Even if this were legal (which we’ll get to shortly), insisting on all your employees being blonde would constitute a ridiculously restrictive limit on your available talent pool, as well as making everyone who came across you question your sanity. Since Christian Grey is apparently very successful and well-regarded, the chances of him imposing such a bizarre requirement for people working for his organisation are small.

b. Please stop speculating if this is legal or not. You have been to college.

c. Your entire theory is based on meeting a grand total of two employees. This is a ridiculously small sample and any conclusions drawn from such an inadequate range are highly likely to be wrong. For example, if I were to judge your entire novel based on the one per cent I’ve read so far, I might accidentally conclude it was written by an idiot.

d. This is the best example of tokenism I have ever seen. You may be eligible for some sort of award.

e. Your statement “I have definitely worn the wrong clothes” implies that briefly sharing physical space with a black man requires some sort of special outfit. Please elaborate.

6. Anastasia enters Christian’s office.
“I push open the door and stumble through, tripping over my own feet, and falling head first into the office.”

a. I am aware that “Fifty Shades” began life as a Twilight fan-fiction. I know that falling over with absolutely no provocation is one of Bella Swan’s most recognisable traits. However, the minute you used the Find / Replace function to convert from Bella Swan to Anastasia Steele, you instantly became free of the constraints of your original genre. Anastasia is not obliged to fall over. You may want to consider this, because…

b. I have been in a lot of meetings in my life, and I have seen a lot of people walk through a lot of doors to get into these meetings. However, I have never, ever, ever seen a grown adult (man or woman) fall over and land face-down on the floor of a meeting-room. And I’m including meetings where half the participants were drunk.

I’m not saying it never happens. I’m just saying it doesn’t sound very plausible, and therefore it sounds dumb.

7. We get to see what Christian Grey looks like
“He’s tall…with unruly dark-copper-coloured hair”

This in itself is not annoying. However, I am flagging it now because it represents the start of a disconcerting love-affair with Robert Pattinson’s Twilight hairstyle that will soon be absolutely doing my head in.

8. Christian Grey’s office
“His office is way too big for just one man”

That would be because his office is also his meeting room, where he holds his meetings, which involve other people coming into the room and being in it.

9. Christian Grey holds forth on the subject of success in business
“Business is all about people, Miss Steele, and I’m very good at judging people. I know how they tick, what makes them flourish, what doesn’t, what inspires them, and how to incentivise them.”

a. Nobody talks like this in real life.

b. Especially since the idiom you are actually looking for is “what makes them tick”.

10. More magnificence from Mr Grey’s Big Book Of Business
“My belief is to achieve success in any scheme one has to make oneself master of that scheme, know it inside and out, know every detail. I work hard, very hard to do that.”

Dude, you are talking about yourself in the third person. Even the Queen can’t do this without sounding weird. She is eighty-six and has never had anyone correct her on it. What’s your excuse?

11. Even more magnificence
“I make decisions based on logic and facts.”

Christ almighty, as opposed to what?

12. This is all from the same unbroken paragraph of direct speech, by the way
“I have a natural gut instinct that can spot and nurture a good solid idea and good people.”

I bet you can also design roller-coasters in under six hours and stare at the sun unblinking.

13. Christian decides it’s time to show Anastasia his human side
“Immense power is acquired by assuring yourself in your secret reveries that you were born to control things.”

a. No, I think it’s probably acquired by a whole lot of hard work.

b. This is really more of a third-date revelation.

14. Bizarre hiring policies
“I employ over forty thousand people, Miss Steele…If I were to decide I was no longer interested in the the telecommunications business and sell up, twenty thousand people would struggle to make their mortgage payments after a month or so.”

Possible explanations for this extraordinary remark:

a. Your entire empire is based on telecommunications, therefore forty thousand telecoms employees. Your business is so lamentably over-staffed that any buyer would be able to instantly lay off at least half your workforce within a month of purchase with absolutely no consequences whatsoever – something which you (despite your apparently ruthless dedication to business success) have completely overlooked. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

b. Telecommunications represents half of your business empire, and is staffed in proportion. If you were to sell it, the buyer would somehow be able to run it at a profit without needing anyone working for them at all – a point which you (despite your apparently ruthless dedication to business success) have completely overlooked. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

c. You’re indulging in a spot of dubious grandstanding to impress Anastasia. Therefore, you’re an idiot.

15. Christian in his spare time
“I’m a very wealthy man, Miss Steele, and I have expensive and absorbing hobbies.”

Soon he’ll be offering to show her his special gold-plated toilet-paper.

16. Question: “You invest in manufacturing. Why, specifically?”
Answer: “I like to build things.”

I laughed so loudly at this that the cat got up and ran out of the room in a panic.

17. More wisdom on the subject of manufacturing
“I like to know how things work: what makes things tick, how to construct and deconstruct. And I have a love of ships. What can I say?”

a. “Investing in manufacturing” is not the same as “making stuff”. Most CEOs are too busy running the company to get deeply involved in understanding the exact construction of everything the company makes. This is why the rest of us have jobs as well as them.

b. “Manufacturing” is not a synonym for “liking ships”.

18. “Are you gay, Mr Grey?”
“I cringe, mortified. Crap. Why didn’t I employ some kind of filter before I read this straight out?”

Hell if I know, Ana. Maybe you’re related to Ron Burgundy?

19. Christian’s PA is astounded by a last-minute change to his schedule
“We’re not finished here, Andrea. Please cancel my next meeting.”

Andrea hesitates, gaping at him. She appears lost.

Later that day, Christian asked for a different sort of biscuit with his coffee, and Andrea keeled over and died.

20. World’s creepiest job offer
“We run an excellent internship program here,” he says quietly. I raise my eyebrows in surprise. Is he offering me a job?

Since he doesn’t know who you are, what you’re good at or even what your major is, I sincerely hope he isn’t. That would be the act of an idiot. And I would so hate to have to think of Christian Grey as an idiot.

21. Anastasia has no self-awareness
“No man has ever affected me the way Christian Grey has, and I cannot fathom why. Is it his looks? His civility? Wealth? Power?”

Yes; finding yourself attracted to a good-looking, age-appropriate billionaire who clearly also fancies you back makes absolutely no sense at all.

22. Anastasia and the Law: Round Two
“As I hit the I-5, I realise I can drive as fast as I want.”

Um, no. No you can’t. You can drive at speeds up to and including the applicable speed limit. Same as always.

23. Sauce for the goose: Kate’s commentary on Anastasia’s love-life
“You, fascinated by a man? That’s a first,” she snorts.

Just out of interest, why does no-one ever ask Anastasia if she’s gay?

24. Obligatory piece of clunky intertextuality (1)
“I work on my essay on Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Damn, but that woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong century.”

Yep, she should have been born in our time. These days, we’re totally down with stabbing your lover through the heart because he makes an ill-judged crack about your ex-husband.

25. Things that are not dreams (1)
“That night I dream of dark places, bleak cold white floors, and grey eyes.”

Really? How does that work, then? Are the bleak cold white floors in the dark places? If the places are dark, how can you see the bleak cold whiteness of the bleak cold white floors? Or do you move from one to the other – like, one minute you’re in a dark place, the next minute you’re standing on a bleak cold white floor? And how about the eyes – are they just rolling around loose on the floor, or what?

26. Fundamental misunderstanding of how home-based businesses work
“[My mother] proceeds to tell me about her latest venture into candle-making…I hope she hasn’t mortgaged the house to finance this latest scheme.”

a. Unless she’s actually built a candle-making factory in the back garden, which seems unlikely, I seriously doubt she will need to mortgage the house to pay for her starter-kit.

b. Also, I doubt that any bank would actually sign off on a mortgage where the stated purpose was “Start candle-making business. Get rich. Buy island in sunshine. etc.”

27. Obligatory piece of clunky intertextuality (2)
“Ray is a skilled carpenter and the reason I know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw.”

a. No, the reason you know the difference between a hawk and a handsaw is because they are absolutely nothing alike.

b. Clearly you think so highly of this reference that you feel compelled to make it again later.

c. Being able to quote from someone else’s masterpiece does not imply that you yourself are actually clever.

28. Anastasia the alcoholic
“Standing on our doorstep is my good friend Jose, clutching a bottle of champagne.”

At this point I would just like to flag up that – despite a later claim that she never gets drunk – Anastasia gets through a really quite astonishing quantity of alcohol in this novel.

29. A poor basis for a friendship
“Not only do we share a sense of humor, but we discovered that both Ray and Jose Senior were in the same army unit together.”

I doubt my dad could pick my friends’ dads out of a police line-up. Does this mean we should cancel our friendships and start hanging out with the children of people our parents went to war and traumatically shot foreigners with?

30. She has read too many books, and it has addled her brain
“Perhaps I’ve spent too long in the company of my literary romantic heroes, and consequently my ideals and expectations are far too high.”

a. Mr Rochester was rude, sarcastic and frequently cruel. Mr Darcy was rude and socially awkward. Alec D’Urberville was a rapist, and Angel Clare ran for the hills as soon as he found out he wasn’t marrying a virgin. Heathcliff was a psychopath.

Exactly which of your ideals and expectations would you say these men have set far too high?

b. Has anyone ever met anyone who died a virgin and a mad old cat lady solely because they never met anyone who matched up to Mr Darcy?

31. The Mark Of The Sue: Wilful blindness to another’s obvious devotion
“I watch Jose open the bottle of champagne…Jose’s pretty hot, but I think he’s finally getting the message: we’re just friends.”

Yeah, when I was a penniless student I used to take bottles of champagne round to my male friends’ houses for absolutely no reason all the time.

32. Surprise about things that are inherently not surprising (1)
“Saturday at the [DIY] store is a nightmare. We are besieged by do-it-yourselfers wanting to spruce up their homes.”

You are working at a DIY store, and have been for four years. It should not take you by surprise that Saturday is your busiest trading day.

33. Mr Grey has entered the building
“Holy crap. What the hell is he doing here…? I think my mouth has popped open, and I can’t locate my brain or my voice.”

a. Unless you have suffered an injury to your cerebellum, resulting in a disorder of proprioception, you should be perfectly capable of determining whether your mouth is, or is not, open. Please consider consulting your nearest neurologist.

b. Your vocal cords are stretched across the front of your larynx, as always.

c. Your brain is in the jar where I’m presuming you usually keep it.

34. …or something.
“His voice is warm and husky like dark melted chocolate fudge caramel…or something.”

Description 101: if you need to qualify your simile with the phrase “or something”, it probably wasn’t that good of a comparison to start with.

35. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (1)
“I shake my head to gather my wits.”

While this adequately conveys the notion that the heroine is overcome by the presence of her
leading man, the unintended consequence is to force the reader to picture her in the guise of a large wet dog that has just exited a body of water.

36. Basic anatomy fail (1)
“Why is he in Portland? Why is he here at Clayton’s? And from a very tiny, under-used part of my brain – probably located at the base of my medulla oblongata where my subconscious dwells – comes the thought: He’s here to see you.”

a. Pretty much by definition, your unconscious is just that – unconscious. It is not possible to engage in dialogue with it.

b. Similarly, your Medulla Oblongata takes care of the boring-but-necessary housekeeping stuff like breathing, heartbeat, temperature regulation, etc. As such it is not capable of generating active thought such as “He’s here to see you”.

c. The word “subconscious” has no real scientific meaning and as such, does not belong in the same sentence as “located at the base of my medulla oblongata”.

37. When there are two explanations for someone’s behaviour, and one of them could pose a serious threat to your life and liberty, and the other is lame and doesn’t really fit with the available evidence, always pick the lame one. Because that’s better in a lot of ways.
“He gazes at the selection of cable ties we stock at Clayton’s. What on Earth is he going to do with those?

…”Is there anything else?”

“I’d like some masking tape…no, [I’m] not redecorating,” he says quickly then smirks….”And some rope, I think.”

Yeah, nothing remotely threatening or disturbing here. And I’m sure the guy who came in and bought seventy-five pounds of ammonium nitrate and sixteen detonators was just planning to give his garden a really, really deep feed this season.

38. Another item in Anastasia’s collection of slightly stalky Just-Good-Friends
“Paul hugs me hard, taking me by surprise…”You’re looking well, Ana, really well.” He grins as he examines me at arm’s length. Then he releases me but keeps a possessive arm draped over my shoulder. I shuffle from foot to foot, embarrassed. It’s good to see Paul, but he has always been over-familiar.”

If he is touching you in a way you don’t like, you have the right to say no. Please forget about shuffling from foot to foot in embarrassment and consider kicking him in the nuts with your foot in righteous outrage.

39. Paul gets dazzled
“Mr Grey,” Paul returns his handshake. “Wait up – not the Christian Grey? Of Grey Enterprises Holding?” Paul goes from surly to awestruck in less than a nanosecond.

a. Think back to your college days. How many CEOs of major corporations could you name? Yeah, I thought so.

b. Even allowing for the fact that Paul is studying Business Administration at Princeton, “Christian Grey” isn’t that unusual a name. It’s a pretty big leap from “You have the same name of someone who has absolutely no reason to be in my family’s hardware store” to “You are that actual person”.

c. The name “Grey Enterprises Holdings” is stupid.

40. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (2)
“Would you like a bag?”

…”Please, Anastasia.” His tongue caresses my name, and my heart once again is frantic.

a. In pronouncing the name “Anastasia”, the tongue stays entirely behind the teeth and is not visible at all. In order to accept the premise that Christian is, indeed, caressing Anastasia’s name with his tongue, I am forced to conclude that he is licking her name-badge.

b. On the other hand, I quite like the idea that this is what he’s doing, so I’m quite tempted to let this one go.

41. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (3)
“My scalp prickles at the idea that maybe, just maybe, he might like me…I hug myself with quiet glee, rocking from side to side.”

Why not try this one in public and see what happens?

42. Basic anatomy fail (2)
“Ana, you’re the one with the relationship.”

“Relationship?” I squeak at her, my voice rising several octaves. “I barely know the guy.”

The average human voice has a natural span of about an octave and a half. A trained singer can generally manage between two and three. At four octaves, Freddie Mercury’s range was so exceptional that almost no-one can sing his work the way he sang it.

For your voice to rise “several octaves” (i.e. three or more), you would either have to have a natural speaking voice somewhere in the range of James Earl Jones, or be capable of producing a pitch somewhat beyond the range of normal human hearing.

43. Things that are not dreams (2)
“I am restless that night, tossing and turning. Dreaming of smoky grey eyes, coveralls, long legs, long fingers, and dark, dark unexplored places.”

I especially like the introduction of “coveralls” into this bizarre still-life collection. Sort of like a collision between “American Gothic” and an abattoir after dark.

44. Good hair, pants that hang from hips
He’s wearing a white shirt, open at the collar, and grey flannel pants that hang from his hips. His unruly hair is still damp from a shower.

a. I refer you to Item 7. From here on in, Hair References will be coming thick and fast.

b. The other thing Ana really goes for is pants that hang from men’s hips. Mentioned once, this is not annoying. Unfortunately, this is not the last we’ll be seeing of Christian Grey’s well-hung pants.

45. Social mobility fail
[Kate] shakes [Christian’s] hand firmly without batting an eyelid. I remind myself that Kate has been to the best private schools in Washington. Her family has money, and she’s grown up confident and sure of her place in the world. She doesn’t take any crap. I am in awe of her.

Welcome to America; the land of opportunity. FFS.

46. Things that sound good until you picture someone actually doing them (4)
“Christian Grey has asked me to go for coffee with him.”

Her mouth pops open. Speechless Kate! I savour the moment.

a. As an experiment, spend a day telling people mildly surprising things like “I thought I might give up sugar in my tea for a week” or “I have six tattoos” or “I met the Queen once when I was small”. Count the number of times anyone’s mouth pops open. If n > 0, I will humbly retract my objection.

b. Kate has been telling Anastasia for pages and pages and pages that Christian likes her. Therefore, speechless shock is not an appropriate reaction to them going to get coffee.

c. Unless she knows Anastasia is gay, of course.

47. Coffee shops do not only sell coffee
“I am going to have coffee with Christian Grey…and I hate coffee.”

Then you will just have to stand outside the shop like a dog waiting for its owner while he goes in on his own, won’t you.

48. In the coffee-shop, Anastasia comes over all sophisticated
“I’ll have…um – English Breakfast tea, bag out.”

“…Okay, bag out tea. Sugar?”

For a moment, I’m stunned, thinking it’s an endearment, but fortunately my subconscious kicks in with pursed lips. No, stupid – do you take sugar?

“No thanks.” I stare down at my knotted fingers.

a. Since the word “Sugar?” is modified by a high-rising terminal, and you’re in a coffee-shop, this is clearly a contextually-appropriate question rather than an endearment. Interpreting it as anything else makes you look like an idiot.

b. We’ve already covered the impossibility of engaging in meaningful dialogue with your unconscious, so I’ll just refer you back to Item 36.

c. As any mother but yours would undoubtedly tell you, staring down at your knotted fingers when someone asks you a perfectly civilised question makes you look surly and rude.

d. In a post-SATC world, any reference to “tea, bag out” or “bag out tea” is automatically funny.

49. Good hair, pants that hang from hips (2)
“He’s tall, broad-shouldered, and slim, and the way those pants hang from his hips…oh my. Once or twice he runs his long, graceful fingers through his now dry but still disorderly hair. Hmm…I’d like to do that.”

a. There is a limit to the number of times I want or need to be told how well these pants hang from his hips, and we have now exceeded it.

b. While it’s traditional for TwiHarders to venerate Robert Pattinson’s hair, as this book is not officially Not Fan Fiction any more, it’s okay to get rid of this particular trope. In fact, I insist.

50. Idle speculation about things that normal people already know
“He has a coffee which bears a wonderful leaf-pattern imprinted in the milk. How do they do that? I wonder idly.”

Oh come on.

That’s the first fifty things, and they haven’t even kissed yet – never mind got to the recreational floggings. However, I was tragically compelled to finish the entire book, getting more and more annoyed with every page. And then I was commissioned to turn it into an e-book. Which is for sale, right now! If you’d like to buy it, that would be lovely.

And if I have managed to inspire in you a raging appetite for Fifty Shades Snark that cannot wait to be satisfied, you may like to swing by my friend Heidi’s blog and enjoy her musings on the subject.

Laters, baby.*

*Just so we’re clear, I’m quoting “Fifty Shades Of Grey”. Yes, really.

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In Which We Learn The Paramount Importance Of Sharing Nicely

Honestly, you’ve got to love the contemptuous way Teen fiction treats the police. Chapter thirteen opens with the world’s least convincing attempt to seal off a crime scene and contain all potential suspects / witnesses found at said scene until they can be properly processed. Admittedly, everything I know about the logistics of sealing off a crime scene comes from getting drunk with a friend who happens to be a copper, and watching “Police, Camera, Action” a lot. But I seriously doubt that it’s actually possible for a key witness to a murder to escape from the clutches of the Law by the cunning means of just walking right out of there without anyone challenging her:

“Matt, I need to go and wash my hands. Bonnie got blood on me. Wait here; I’ll be back.”

He started to say something in protest, but she was already moving away. She held up her stained hands in explanation as she reached the door of the girls’ locker room, and the teacher who was now standing there let her through. Once in the locker room, however, she kept on going, right out the far door and into the darkened school. And from there, out into the night.

Meanwhile, Stefan has reached the mysterious conclusion that he must somehow be responsible for the public eating of Mr Tanner, and thus wins my award for Biggest Ever-Lovin’ Idiot Of The Entire Canon Of Vampire Literature:

How else did you explain what had happened? He had felt the weakness, the spinning, swirling confusion; and then darkness had taken him. When he’d awakened it was to hear Matt saying that another human being had been pillaged, assaulted. Robbed this time not only of his blood, but of his life. How did you explain that unless he, Stefan, were the killer?

…but first…he was thirsty. His veins burned like a network of hot, dry wires. He needed to feed…soon…now.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, Mr Salvatore, but a mere thirty pages ago, were you not slurping away at the jugular of a deer? And did you not explicitly state that – having drained off a quantity small enough that this deer could still get up and run away afterwards – you’d had enough? Thus clearly establishing that the burning in your network of hot, dry wires could be effectively slaked with, oh, let’s say, a pint or so?

So what the holy guacamole makes you think you recently fell asleep and absent-mindedly ate an entire person when a maximum of half an hour has passed and you’re absolutely starving hungry?????!!!!!!!

Also, I object to your use of the word “Zuccone” as a curse-word.

Meanwhile, Elena (still wearing the world’s most terrifying frock) is tearing through the streets of Smallville, heading for Stefan’s place, which has apparently been trashed. Personally I’d take that as evidence that Stefan’s been burgled, or maybe just mislaid his cuff-links and been running late; but Elena decides this proves he must have killed Mr Tanner, because in Elena’s world there’s basically no difference between trashing your room in a fit of inexplicable rage / lost-cufflink panic, and killing someone who once annoyed you in class.

But despite this, she still wants to see him. Even though she is convinced he killed her history teacher. By cutting his throat. For no adequately explainable reason. Why? WHY? Is it too much to ask for our heroine to model a little bit of emotionally intelligent behaviour? Just once?

And then she climbs out through the trap-door and onto the roof, and catches Stefan eating a dove.

Appropriate responses to finding your boyfriend standing on the roof of his house eating a dove
1. Run away
2. Calmly explain that this is a step too far and your relationship is over, then run away
3. Point over his shoulder, yell “Ohmygod! Shark!” and take advantage of his momentary confusion to run away
4. Think, “Ah, well, I’ve eaten beef carpaccio before, and at least the dove’s free-range” and ask for a bite

Inappropriate responses to finding your boyfriend standing on the roof of a house eating a dove
1. Flounce around in your silly frock until you fall off the roof, and hope he’s fast enough to catch you

So yeah; he eats doves, he’s fast enough to catch you, and he hasn’t got a heartbeat, which you never noticed despite all that necking in the woods because you have the observational skills of a watermelon. Basically, your boyfriend’s a vampire. But it’s not like that comes with any significant downsides these days, is it? He’s super-strong, super-fast, super-gorgeous and is a super-car-owner. He eats animals, but hell, so do you, and the ones you eat have to be dead first. He even has a speshul bit of tat on a string round his neck that means he can go out in daylight, so you can still make him go shopping for place-mats on Saturday afternoons!

Oh wait; hang on; we’re about to get to the fatal flaw. He has a brother with sharing issues.

Back we go to fifteenth-century Florence, where Elena’s Vampirical Euro-doppelganger Katherine has a decision to make. Is she going to spend all eternity hanging out with Stefan, or with Damon? And this is where I start to realise that Katherine could potentially be by far my favourite person in the whole novel, because she picks my answer, which is to spend it with both of ’em.

In case you were wondering, this is how come both the Salvatore brothers seem to have ended up in the ranks of the Immortal Undead. Right after that disturbingly Oedipal scene where she turned Stefan into a vampire, she hopped out of his bed and into Damon’s.

Two in one night? You go, girl! A vamp in every sense of the word.

So now nobody has to make any difficult choices, and nobody has to go home empty-handed, and everyone can live with everyone they love and raise bunnies on a farm or something, for ever and ever and ever…except that Damon hates Stefan, and Damon doesn’t want to share.

Okay, for us mere mortals, with one life to live and less than a hundred years to live it in, possessive jealousy over someone we love is a perfectly rational response. But I’ll say it again, boys; you have the whole of eternity to fill. If you can’t stand the sight of each other, work out a rota system! In your day / week / century off, you can go off and explore the world or something, right? Hell, maybe you’ll even get lucky after the first five hundred years or so and meet Elizabeth’s absolute dead ringer living in a small town in Mid-West America, and you’ll both go batshit crazy over her as well, and she won’t be able to choose between the two of you either, but she won’t have to because Eternity goes on for ever, and all four of you can unlive happily ever after in a shiny, happy foursome. Just an idea.

Alternatively, Damon could just pitch a huge tantrum and declare that he’s not sharing with Stefan because Stefan has cooties, and somehow this could bring about the death of Katherine, in a manner that probably absolves both Stefan and Damon of any real wrong-doing, because otherwise we might have to think badly of one of them, and that would be, like, a major buzz-kill. Of course, Stefan insists it’s his fault; but Stefan thinks he might have eaten an entire person and still had room for a dove afterwards, so I’m not taking any notice of what Stefan thinks.

So, yeah; now we have to wait and see what kind of answer L J Smith can deliver where Stefan is justified in all this self-loathing, but where Stefan is mysteriously not to blame after all (see above). I hope this happens soon. I’m thirteen chapters into this bloody book and I feel like I’ve been doing this for ever.

And I still want to know about the Lemon Tree. [Note from the future: yesss!]

If you and a friend clubbed together and went to Amazon, you could jointly own a share of The Vampire Diaries for less than £2 each. Remember, it’s good to share.

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Banjos At The Ready, Folks

It goes without saying that preferring the book to the movie is the classy thing to do. Even when it’s practically compulsory to believe that the movie is a tour de force whose significance only you and your best friends truly understand (I’m looking at you, Mr York University FilmSoc Treasurer Blade Runner fan) – the hardcore compulsives will still be making the case that if you really think about it, “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” was just much better in a lot of ways.

And all those list articles proclaiming that Sometimes, The Movie Is Actually Better Than The Book? They only really work because that’s not the way round it’s supposed to be. In the cultural lexicon of life, Books beat Movies, and that’s just how it is.

So. I’ve seen the movie of “Deliverance” a few times, and, in common with a lot of people, I liked it quite a lot. I was fully prepared to like the book even more. A trip to AbeBooks and a couple of clicks later, and it landed on my doormat a few days ago.

It’s certainly different from the film. Better? Hmmm.

Before writing the twentieth century’s definitive account of Hillbilly sodomy, James Dickey was mostly known as a poet. And a successful poet, too; he won a Guggenheim fellowship and was the US Congress Poet Laureate for a while. I think it’s fair to say that – even though “Deliverance” is an action-adventure story – Dickey’s poetic roots are showing throughout the book. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The book is narrated by Ed (Jon Voight in the film), and the main difference between the book and the film is the amount of time we get to spend with Ed’s rather dreamy and lyrical thoughts about life, the universe and everything. Where the movie dives straight into the action of the trip, the novel has a fifty-page build-up, describing precisely what a weekend off being a man with other men in the face of Nature’s mighty power means to Ed. How much you’re going to like this depends on how much you like spending time inside the head of a bored middle-aged graphic designer who clearly fancies himself as a poet, and even more clearly feels he’s a little bit too good for his job, his friends, his wife and his life generally.

Sometimes, Ed’s inner monologue is sharp and punchy, like his economical description of Bobby Trippe; “smooth thin hair and a high pink complexion”. Other times, it’s really sort of hilarious. Ed shares his thoughts on his business partner (“He had a face like a hawk, but it was a special kind of hawk”), a model for a knickers advert whose left eye he gets obsessed with (“There was a peculiar spot, a kind of tan slice, in her left eye, and it hit me with, I knew right away, strong powers”), having sex with his wife before leaving for the trip (“in the centre of Martha’s heaving and expertly working back, the gold eye shone, not with the practicality of sex, so necessary to its survival, but the promise of it that promised other things…”) and his post-coital trip to the bathroom (“I went to the bathroom and stood with my eyes closed and flowed”).

“The promise of it that promised other things”? You know those poems we all write when we’re about fifteen or so, and then we go back to them about ten years later and think “Jesus Christ” and either burn them or hide them somewhere very, very secret, like the bottom of the compost heap or something? Yeah? Yeah.

So, anyway. After really quite a lot of this – plus the kind of detail about their camping equipment I’d personally only expect from a Camping Supplies Catalogue – we get to the first iconic scene of the film; Lonnie and Drew’s inpromptu duet. Unsurprisingly, the movie does this scene much better, because music doesn’t really lend itself well to verbal description. However much I like the observation that “I could not see Drew’s face, but the back of his neck was sheer joy”, it doesn’t compare to seeing that fabulous, spontaneous musical duel unfold right in front of you. There was never any way the book was going to top the film on this one; the natural advantage is all in one direction.

Similarly, the central rape scene has orders-of-magnitude more power on the screen than it does in the book:

A scream hit me, and I would have thought it was mine but for the lack of breath. It was a sound of pain and outrage, and it was followed by one of simple and wordless pain. Again it came out of him, higher and more carrying…

It doesn’t help that we’re watching Ed watch the rape, and what we get is how it feels to watch (rather than how it feels to do or to be done to). No matter how hard it is to read about Ed listening to Bobby scream, it can’t compete with the shock of seeing the savage pleasure in his rapist’s face as he slaps him on the buttock, or the horror of Bobby’s utter helplessness. Interestingly, the most memorable line of the film, “Squeal!” was an ad-lib. Score two to the movie.

One thing the book delivers that the movie doesn’t is the sensual connection Ed feels with every aspect of his experience. Ed’s journey is a sort of descent into the visceral, a documentation of how wrong / right it feels to get away from all that soap and civilisation and roll around in the mud and get cold and dirty and hungry, and then kill stuff. And as with the descriptions of Suburban Hell, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Here’s Ed looking at Lewis having a wash:

Everything he had done for himself for years paid off as he stood there in his tracks, in the water. I could tell by the way he glanced at me; the payoff was in my eyes. I had never seen such a male body in my life, even in the pictures in the weight-lifting magazines…

I can totally see why this didn’t make it into the movie. In a film where sex between men is so central anyway, it’s hard to imagine how you could show this without giving it a massive erotic charge. But in a written context, where Ed is dreamily admiring everything around him in almost exactly the same way, he can stare at Lewis’s perfect male form without it feeling like he wants to jump Lewis’s bones. His wistful admiration becomes just an extension of his overall romance with the landscape.

Thing is, human beings aren’t actually meant to fall in love with landscapes:

Time after time I lay there sweating, having no handhold or foothold, the rubber of my toes bending back against the soft rock, my hands open. Then I would begin to try to inch upwards again, moving with the most intimate motions of my body, motions I had never dared use with Martha, or with any other human woman. Fear and a kind of enormous moon-blazing sexuality lifted me, millimetre by millimetre.

And I thought those guys who fall in love with Volkswagens were strange.

Okay, so I’ve laughed at Dickey’s writing style quite enough now. It’s time to hold my hands up and declare that, despite the people who look like special kinds of hawk and Ed’s moon-blazing sexuality, I like this piece of wilderness-writing much more than, for example, “She”, or “Moby Dick”, or Jack London’s entire canon. It’s just that, you know, I like the movie much better. It’s tighter and neater and more economical, and it packs a far, far greater emotional punch.

But the book did make me laugh more than the movie. So I’m not writing it off as a total loss.

“Deliverance” is out of print, but Abe Books have many copies available starting from just 62p.

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I came across “The Stand In” via a Twitter recommendation, from someone who I’ve never met and have never spoken to in person. But thanks to the magic of Twitter feeds (I think we met on the #amwriting hashtag or something), every now and then we get to enjoy the fun of making a difference to the life of a total stranger by recommending a book they’d never otherwise have come across. Sometimes you get something that’s completely disappointing; but other times you discover a gorgeous and unexpected little gem that you absolutely adore, and want to recommend to other people. Isn’t the internet brilliant?

“The Stand In” is a lovely, tightly-plotted, perfectly-crafted sliver of Hollywood noir. Rising Hollywood superstars and former lovers Rick DeNova and Lola Chandler are locked into starring roles in Centurion Studios’ production from Hell – a prestige vanity-project to bring Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to the big screen. Rick’s taste for beating up and violently murdering the women in his life, coupled with a burgeoning heroin habit, mean that both he and the production are gradually falling apart, threatening to take Centurion down with it. Hollywood Insider front-woman Nadine Nugent is intent on furthering her broadcasting career by getting the inside scoop on Centurion, while her college-boy minion Danny Gillis is desperate for a big story that will free him from Nadine’s clutches and transform his journalistic career. And Eddie Baines from Hicksville is desperate to exploit his eerie resemblance to Rick and begin his own stratospheric rise to stardom.

Noir, as we all know, comes from cinema, and cinema is the home of heightened reality and slightly implausible occurrences. With that in mind, let me say that the plot of “The Stand-in” does rely on the existence of one huge, giant, incredibly fortunate coincidence (the arrival in Hollywood of a near-perfect visual double for a famous-but-troublesome film-star at exactly the moment the film-star starts to become more trouble than he’s worth, said double also being a brilliant actor). However, you’d have to be a very mean reader indeed not to accept this slight stretching of our collective credibility, because the way everyone responds to this astounding gift from the Gods is so horribly plausible. There’s virtually no moral hesitation from anyone; they just leap gleefully onto this fantastic opportunity like starving vultures. As far as almost everyone in Hollywood is concerned, Eddie is a commercial opportunity, not a person.

Is it believable that everyone from the Head of Studio to the Director to the Police Chief to the predatory landlord would just think “Yahoo, Rick DeNova without the hassle” and crack on with the nasty exploitative behaviour just as fast as it occurs to them? Personally I think it makes perfect sense. Actors are brands, and always have been. They’re owned and packaged by the studios, carefully positioned within the marketplace, and replaced as necessary when their shelf-life expires. Everything the head of Centurion does is shocking, but sadly, nothing he does is actually unbelievable. Geagley shows us a town without a moral centre, where the need to make money beats every other imperative, for everyone, in every institution, everywhere. Look me in the eye and tell me you think he’s called it wrong.

The one exception to this Ed-sploitation fest is Lola Chandler, Two Cities‘ beautiful leading lady. Like a lot of male-dominated genres (see also Superhero comics and Space Opera), noir tends to suck at women. It also tends to suck at them in exactly the same way each time, in that they become either 1) an impossibly beautiful and talented goddess who inexplicably goes out with some utterly average / borderline inadequate guy and then ends up dead because, because, well just because, really or 2) some impossibly beautiful and talented evil super-villainess who is inexplicably overcome by some utterly average / borderline inadequate guy and then ends up dead, just because. Noir tends to suck at women; but every now and then, you find a noir book that doesn’t. Lola Chandler is nice, sweet, flawed, occasionally dumb, human, believable, properly realised and well-written, and I loved her and was rooting for her every inch of the way. Admittedly, this success isn’t universal – Nadine is a little bit too much of a bitch-queen, and the starry-eyed red-shirt blondes who line up to be strangled by Rick have no character beyond “and they really, really fancy Rick DeNova”. But that’s okay. They’re the bit players. At least the leading lady is awesome.

My only real criticism of this book is that it doesn’t feel particularly rooted in its time. From the clues we get (James Dean is dead, Marlon Brando exists, Cleopatra is a contemporary project) I’m guessing late fifties or early sixties. But somehow it doesn’t feel like any particular time. The language, the clothes, the cars, the settings, all feel as if they could belong to Hollywood at any stage of its existence. It’s possible that this timelessness was exactly the effect Geagley was going for, but personally I found it a bit irritating. However, that’s a small niggle, and I’m going to forgive it because it’s such a beautifully-written tale.

One last thing. In the blurb, the author makes the provocative claim that “you won’t guess the ending”. So of course, I spent every second of my first reading of this book trying to guess the ending. And you know what? I honestly didn’t guess what was coming. The basic direction of travel is easy to predict – very early on, Eddie is asked why he thinks Hollywood would want another Rick DeNova when it already has one, but since Rick is clearly psychotic and unreliable, and Eddie is humble, charming and a much better actor, that part’s not too hard to figure out – but there are so many unexpected twists, turns and shimmies along the way that it doesn’t feel predictable at all. And then, just when you think it’s all over, that nice Mr Geagley goes and slaps you round the chops with a whole other surprise that was right there under your nose all along, but you didn’t spot it because you were too distracted with the tightly-written descriptions and the sharp characterisation and the perfect pacing and the excellent craftsmanship, boo-ya.

“The Stand-In” would be worth reading even without the shock of discovering the author really has been cleverer than you, because it’s very, very well-written and it’s worth it just for the journey to its inevitable and well-foreshadowed ending. But finding a book that really has lived up to the “you won’t see this one coming” hype? That’s just delightful.

“The Stand In” is available as a Kindle e-book for the pleasingly eccentric sum of £3.28

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I read “Come Closer” after seeing it recommended on a Mumsnet thread asking for people to share their favourite “scary books”. Despite this, I should begin by saying that – the odd moment of utter horror excepted – this is not, strictly speaking, a scary book. At least, it’s not a scary book in the sense that it’s highly unlikely to give you nightmares (and I say this as someone who was plagued for years with terrible cold-sweat dreams about this completely unconvincing giant snake from Doctor Who).

What it is, though, is scary in the same tradition as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”, and Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (which I raved about here). It’s scary because it raises some uncomfortable questions about the consequences of power. Specifically, the consequences of giving power to a previously powerless woman.

At first sight, the plot is incredibly simple. The narrator, Amanda, describes the experience of being possessed by a female demon named Naamah. As the book unfolds and Naamah becomes more and more dominant, Amanda’s mental processes become increasingly unreliable. The story’s ending is ambiguous; on the one hand, Amanda has lost everything she ever valued, but on the other hand, Naamah – now fully in possession of Amanda’s body – is having the time of her life, living exactly how she pleases and enjoying every minute.

It has to be said that there are plenty of books about demonic possession. But what really makes the book sing is the ambiguity of its central premise. Is Amanda really being possessed by a separate entity? Or is she acting out some hidden part of her own character?

The opening chapter has Amanda’s boss hauling her over the coals for submitting a report to him which contains the memorable opening, “Leon Fields is a cocksucking faggot. Leon Fields eats shit and likes it.” Amanda is horrified. This isn’t the report she wrote, she assures Leon. Unsurprisingly, he believes her – because truly, who would write that in a report about their boss and then deliberately leave it on their desk for them to find? Amanda returns to her desk to think about what just happened:

I left his office and went back to my own desk. I hadn’t written the fake proposal, but I wished I knew who did. Because it was true; Leon Fields was a cocksucking faggot, and he did eat shit, and I had always suspected that he liked it very much.

Back in her apartment, Amanda and her husband Ed are plagued by a strange tapping noise. They hunt high and low, but are unable to find any cause. Later on, an apparent warehousing error at a publishing house means that, instead of a copy of “Design Issues Past And Present”, Amanda receives “Demon Possession Past And Present”. Reading it, she discovers that strange tapping noises can be the first sign of a demonic haunting.

On the one hand, Amanda’s secret and outrageous thoughts about her boss make it into a report she was seen leaving on his desk. On the other, both Amanda and Ed can hear the noises. Amanda’s experiences fit the profile of demonic possession, but this profile comes from a book she may very well have ordered herself. Is Naamah a separate entity or not? We’re pulled one way, then the other. In the hands of a more florid writer, this could be incredibly irritating, but Gran’s style is sparse and minimal, and the result is a pleasingly subtle undercutting of all possible interpretations of Amanda’s experience. By the end, we genuinely don’t know if we’ve read an account of demonic possession, or of mental illness.

Or is it, instead, something else altogether? Is this a story about the consequences of a woman throwing off the shackles of acceptable female behaviour? The central relationship of the book is Amanda’s marriage to Ed, which gradually unravels as the “possession” takes hold. But is this a tragedy, or a liberation?

Well, what do we think?

I was twenty-eight when I met Edward. I felt lucky to have found him. He was a man you could trust, a big-boned healthy blond. No skeletons in his closet…He didn’t like sports or late-night television…he had a good mind for details, a good memory, and a determination to follow through on his word: if he said he was going to call at three, he called at three…

…there were a few things about Ed, small things, that drove me crazy. For instance he was almost compulsively neat – a scrap of paper on the coffee table for longer than a day or two would upset him. He was given to a rigidity that could be slightly repulsive…if there was no thin-sliced white bread for toast in the morning he could be thrown into a mood for hours. And he didn’t take any deviation from a plan well…and the toothpaste cap that absolutely must be replaced immediately, and the shirts that had to be folded just so…

Ed also over-plays his allergies to stop Amanda from smoking or having pets, polices her drinking habits and turns up five hours late on Valentine’s Day, to a romantic dinner in he himself had proposed. He might have good hair and do the tax-returns on time; but that’s not really much of a trade.

Ed’s attitude to Amanda is bossy and paternalistic. Even though she’s an independent woman with her own career, he still tries to force her into the role of home-maker. When she (or Naamah) resists, it’s sometimes hard not to give a little cheer. Here’s Ed attempting to pick a huge fight with Amanda for failing to cater for a dinner-party for Ed’s friends:

“I don’t understand,” he yelled. “You didn’t make ANYTHING? We have people coming over in one hour and you don’t even have a box of fucking rice in the house? What the hell am I supposed to serve, cereal and ice cream?”

“No, Ed,” I told him, “You mean you didn’t make anything, you don’t even have a box of rice, and you have people coming over in one hour. And no, they can’t have my ice cream.”

This is the acceptable face of female resistance – standing up to domestic drudgery, refusing to be bullied by the patriarchy. Other incidents are more ambiguous. Is it liberating or destructive to sleep with strangers, to drink to excess, to smoke, to gatecrash parties wearing provocative clothing? Still other incidents are unequivocally hideous. We see Amanda committing acts of violence and intimidation against men and women, against loved ones and strangers – sometimes out of revenge, and sometimes just because it’s fun.

I really like that Amanda’s story doesn’t progress from you-go-sister to that’s-a-bit-much-actually to Jesus-you-need-locking-up. The violent, selfish, destructive acts committed by Naamah are there from the start. In this narrative, the opposite of “repressed” is not “liberated” but “dangerous”. We never get our moment of perfect balance between Amanda’s good-girl obedience and Naamah’s destructive rage.

And that’s what makes this story really interesting. By casting off the shackles of societal expectation, Amanda discovers she can do pretty much anything she pleases. She can insult her boss. She can threaten strangers. She can steal what she wants. She can hurt and even kill people who annoy her. She can have sex with any piece of pretty rough-trade that takes her fancy. She can almost drown a child in full view of her parents. She can burn her husband with cigarettes. She can do anything she likes, because she’s stopped caring what other people think. Even in the mental hospital where the novel ends (of course Amanda – quite literally a Madwoman in the Attic – ends up in a mental hospital…where else could a Feminist Horror novel possibly end?), Naamah / Amanda is still having the time of her life:

First I stabbed a girl with one of those home-made knives. I don’t know why. Then, in solitary, I grew my nails long and attacked on of the guards. Luck for her she wasn’t pretty to begin with. So I got moved to high security.

She has a grand old time here, she has all the girls following her orders, she’s sleeping with one of the guards and maybe one of the doctors. She’s like a fox in a chicken coop here in the hospital.

I’m a feminist. (I have the mug and everything.) I am absolutely committed to the concept of equal rights, and to a life lived according to individual abilities, rather than gender expectations. I believe we all have the right to live our lives in a way that makes us happy, rather than a way society says we ought to live them.

But of course, there’s always one crucial caveat, which is that we don’t harm others by doing so. Whether she’s a true demon, or just the externalisation of Amanda’s own self, Naamah is the inevitable outcome of liberation without conscience.

“Come Closer” is available from Amazon for £7.19 in paperback and for £6.83 as a Kindle edition. I’m sure these price points make sense to someone.

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I’m So Ashamed Of It, But Must Admit…

Oh, Elena. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love the way you sit in your Trigonometry lesson, artlessly pouring forth the secrets of your heart into you diary. I love the way you decide not to press charges against Tyler for sexually assaulting you, because that wouldn’t be romantic or feminine or anything, so apparently we’re just going to sweep that one under the carpet. (Okay, just to be clear – I don’t love that at all. In fact, I find that depressing beyond words.) I love how you appear to have skipped every meal anyone has offered you in the last few days, and I love how this is presented as evidence of your ineffable female delicacy. Most of all, I love your naive and icky assumption that adults find watching you and Stefan lick each other in public even the slightest bit arousing:

“…he was right, not to go up to each other in a public hallway, not unless we want to give the secretaries a thrill.”

Kissing was not invented until 1989. TRUFAX

And it’s not just the secretaries who are in danger of spontaneous combustion from their mere proximity to two horny teens who really, really want to have sex with each other:

“When we’re with each other I can feel how he feels, and I know how much he wants me, how much he cares. There’s an almost desperate hunger inside him when he kisses me, as if he wants to pull the soul right out of my body. Like a black hole that

Well, a little break there because Ms Halpern caught me. She even started to read what I’d written out loud, but then I think the subject matter steamed her glasses up and she stopped.”

Yes, Elena, I’m sure Ms Halpern was completely turned on by the thought that when Stefan kisses you it feels like he’s sucking the soul right out of your body. Or maybe she was disturbed by your revelation that you were assaulted by Tyler, but won’t be pressing charges, and none of the adults around you seem to have a problem with that. Perhaps she was concerned that both you and Stefan seem to have an incipient eating disorder. It could even be that she stopped because she couldn’t keep going without crying with laughter.

Or maybe she stopped from compassion, because frankly you sound like a lunatic, and even the very meanest teacher might think that gratuitous mockery of her students, in public and in full view of their classmates, is a bit much.

Anyway, Elena, let’s talk about some more things I love about you. I love your naked gloating over the knowledge that you totes have Stefan and Caroline totes doesn’t have Stefan and that means you win, like, for reals. (No, seriously, I do sort of love that. It’s not a very worthy emotion, but I can relate to it. It makes you seem real and human. I prefer you gloating over your hot boyfriend who prefers you to your mortal enemy, to you flouncing around the place skipping meals. Also, I do know you don’t come from California. There’s just something about you that compels me to break out my Inner Valley Girl.) I love that Stefan is doing everything he can to tell you that HE NEVER EATS FOOD AND YET STILL HE DOESN’T DIE, and yet the word “Vampire” remains about as far from your consciousness as the word “Feminist”, because you are besotted with the concept of being worthy of him.

And I love that you and your friends are on the committee for the creation of a Haunted House school fundraiser, and you actually have serious conversations about where you’re going to put the Bloody Corpse.

Happy Hallowe'en!

So, here you are, alone in the school, after hours and after dark. Specifically, you have locked yourselves in the school, because somehow you’ve decided that the chances of a random passing murderer trying to get in are far greater than the chances of there being a fire and you needing to get out, and you’re talking about the best way to present the illusion of someone you all know having been savagely hacked to death, for the purposes of raising money. And, as you and your friends try to find the non-existent sweet-spot which will allow your portrayal of said Bloody Corpse to be both realistic, and tasteful, the lights go out.

Sensible courses of action when all the lights go out
1. Wait a minute and see if they come back on
2. If they stay off, everyone evacuate the building and then call maintenance
3. If you have any suspicion that you are in danger, close the door to the room you’re in and use your cell-phone to call the police

Stupid courses of action when all the lights go out
1. Two of you go off to look for the maintenance man, leaving one of you behind, in the dark, by themselves, even though two people you know have been randomly attacked in the last week and everyone has a feeling that something’s wrong.
2. The one who’s left behind suddenly realises she’s being watched by a predatory-looking stranger.
3. But he’s good-looking, so that’s somehow okay.

Elena, I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to love you for not freaking out and completely losing your shit at this point. Unfortunately, I am very much of the opinion that sometimes, freaking out and completely losing your shit is entirely the best course of action. Also, I think we’ve discussed before that there is no inherent contradiction between a man being well-dressed and really good-looking, and a man being a sexual predator. So instead, I think I’m going to love you for completely missing the point of the next couple of minutes of your life:

“What am I doing? She thought in shock. I was about to let him kiss me. A total stranger, someone I met a few minutes ago.

But that wasn’t the worst thing. For those few minutes, something unbelievably had happened. For those few minutes, she had forgotten Stefan.”

Ohnoes! In the excitement of meeting a second man you fancy, you actually forgot about the existence of the first man you fancy, who you’ve been absolutely crazy about for at least…at least three weeks or so…and who you decided was the love of your life within about…oh, about forty seconds…of laying eyes on him.

Some might take this to mean that Stefan might not, actually, be all that and a bag of chips. But not you. In the teeth of the evidence, you’re sticking to your stubborn belief that we all get just one soulmate, and Stefan is yours.

Elena Gilbert, I really, truly think I love you. You’re stupid and self-absorbed and you worry about the strangest things at the strangest times. But you do at least entertain me along the way.

Stay fickle.

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