Monday, October 7, 2013

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 7: Evening Dress with Decorations

The English writer Simon Raven, who died in 2001, seems to have made an impact in his day -- a late career book of reminiscences to be called Is There Anybody There? said The Traveller had to be withdrawn by the publisher over accusations of libel and threats of lawsuits -- but that impact has faded.  An informal poll of well-read UK natives I know didn't turn up anyone familiar with Raven's books, even though his ten-volume series of novels called Alms for Oblivion (which I'm currently in the process of gathering about me) brought him some notoriety over the course of their publication, from 1959 to 1976.  Also notorious was the man himself.  "[He] trailed an odour of brimstone," according to Gerald Priestland, a classmate of Raven's at Charterhouse, a preparatory school from which Raven was expelled for "serial homosexuality"; later, Raven impregnated a woman, and while he did marry her he evidently felt no obligation towards her or his child, since, following the marriage, he "studiously avoided her," going so far in the end to enter the army as a means of escaping "the pram in the hall" -- all of this according to the obituary of Raven published in The Guardian, and as obituaries of literary figures go, this one is pretty jaundiced towards the decedent, and no wonder.

Simon Raven lived his life in decadence as a pagan, sybarite, cynic, and possible misanthrope, each characteristic, from what I gather, appearing in abundance within his 25 novels, including the only one I've read thus far, a curious modern vampire story called Doctors Wear Scarlet, from 1960, that appears to be, right at this moment, the one novel by Raven that has enjoyed any kind of longevity.  A thin kind of longevity, as I only know of it through lists of "forgotten" horror novels, and the like.  But some well-known horror writers have banged the drum for Doctors Wear Scarlet, among them Karl Edward Wagner and Kim Newman (who cites it as one of the inspirations for his own Anno-Dracula), and even though Simon Raven strikes me as a person who, were he still alive, I would not care to know personally, his vampire novel is deserving of the desperate attempt to save it from the dust heap.

The story is told from the point of view of Anthony Seymour, graduate of Lancaster College, Cambridge, and friend of Richard Fountain, a current student of that institution, though as the novel opens the two men haven't seen each other in some time.  Seymour is compelled to give his history with curious Fountain by a police inspector named John Tyrrell.  Fountain, it turns out, is currently in Greece conducting research on his great academic subject, which, broadly, is ancient religions and paganism.  However, just at the moment the Greek police are seeking to throw Fountain out of their country due to, as Tyrrell puts it, certain "discoveries" and "peculiar, not to say abnormal, conduct."  So the first quarter of Doctors Wear Scarlet is given over the background of Richard Fountain.  Seymour didn't first meet him at Lancaster -- Fountain is a few years younger than Seymour, and their lives at Lancaster didn't overlap much -- but when they were much younger at Charterhouse (Raven's own school in his early days).  Seymour describes a man who was a nearly perfect student, but not a grade-grubber, a rule-follower but not one to tattle on his fellow students, stand-offish, even cold, but also kind, and a man who loathed bullies.  Yet Seymour and others close to him always believed there was something wrong with Fountain, even slightly disturbing, which makes Seymour more willing to accept the implications of Tyrrell's vague story.
In the course of Seymour's story we will learn of Walter Goodrich, a professor of classics at Lancaster whom Seymour regards as a terrible phony and manipulator, and who didn't so much take Fountain under his wing as envelope the young man with both wings and attempt to feed him from his own mouth.  Seymour describes Goodrich's plans to not only control Fountain's academic future, but to pair Fountain off with his daughter Penelope, a young girl who falls instantly in love with Fountain, and takes his abuse when his initial meek attempts to rebel against Goodrich (whose influence allows Fountain to publish a couple of volumes of poetry that are met with some critical acclaim, though both Seymour and Tyrrell regard the acclaim as misguided), but who nevertheless is not without backbone.  The final key relationship is that between Fountain and another student named Piers Clarence, a man who seems to resemble, in educational laziness, natural intellect, and his devotion to pleasure above just about anything else, Simon Raven himself.  Goodrich regards Clarence as a hideously bad influence on what he wants out of Fountain's life, and indeed some damage has been done.  What rebellion Fountain has mounted against Goodrich, including extending his research trip to Greece from one year to two, has in fact been influenced by Clarence.

So those are the key relationships in Doctors Wear Scarlet.  As a horror story, it doesn't quite begin, outside of those hints dropped by Tyrrell, until, at Tyrrell's behest, Seymour, Clarence, and one of Fountain's old Army friends, Major Roddy Longbow, travel to Greece to find and retrieve Richard Fountain.  There they learn that Fountain has been seen with a young woman as they bounce from island to island, attempting to elude the police but not Seymour, with whom Fountain has been corresponding, wanting his friends to find him.  Which, eventually, they do.

How much further should I go?  Not much, I don't think.  Doctors Wear Scarlet is essentially broken into three parts:  Seymour telling Tyrrell everything he knows about Richard Fountain; Seymour, Clarence, and Longbow's adventures in Greece; and a third section that finds the surviving characters back at Lancaster.  This last section, about which I really shouldn't describe more, is easily the most distinctive, and what makes the novel such an individual achievement.

There are several things that are interesting about the way Raven approaches vampirism and the horror genre as a whole.  In some ways, it's quite traditional -- the Greece adventure recalls Dracula enough that I wondered if the heroes of Raven's novel could be matched up with Harker and Seward, or Holmwood and Morris, or some other combination thereof (at least one did occur to me, but it would count as a spoiler so never mind).  It's a fun section of the novel -- each section has much to recommend it -- but one thing that stuck out as interesting, though possibly insignificant (or not?) is how Raven describes Seymour and his companions in the early stages of their quest, before the truth of Fountain's activities are revealed to them, simply enjoying themselves as travelers, drinking and eating and joking, basking in the novelty and pleasures of a new country.  This state of mind is not something typically addressed in horror novels of this sort.  The heroes are quite often very single-minded, and distractions are seen as deadly.  This is not to say the men become debauched, but simply that Fountain is only a destination, as perhaps Athens might be if they were simply traveling for its own sake.

And of course, this all feeds into Raven's general philosophy of life.  In the Guardian obituary, there's a quote from Raven that ends "...enjoy yourself now, and sod anyone who tries to stop you."  Okay, though when this quote is set against the particulars of, say, Raven's attitude towards his wife and son, it's bound to raise an eyebrow.  As it pertains to Doctors Wear Scarlet, though, it's quite logical.  The villain in the novel is, in fact, Walter Goodrich, who doesn't believe what he says, uses what and who he needs, and will squeeze the life out of a young man if it means a stronger hold on Lancaster down the road, and that his admittedly good-hearted daughter finally gets married.  But if Goodrich is responsible for Penelope's wedded bliss -- something that I think we can agree is debatable, and Penelope might well be stronger and more popular and even already with someone she loves if she had any father other than Walter Goodrich -- he is unquestionably not responsible for Fountain's.  It's only because, as Seymour pointed out to Tyrrell, there is something twisted inside of Fountain that the whole house comes down.
But this is a book about vampires, I thought.  Well, it is.  Perhaps most fascinating of all is Raven's take on vampirism, which he attempts, with some success, to explain away psychologically, much as Richard Matheson explained it scientifically.  Somehow, Raven is completely logical about this, and I will go ahead and spoil it.  Tyrrell and Seymour meet with a Dr. Erik Holmstrom (possibly the novel's Abraham Van Helsing) who acknowledges the existence  of vampires but does not allow for any supernatural source for it.  Instead, in keeping with the novel's not graphic but not at all veiled sexual...not subtext, but sexual backdrop almost, Holmstrom says that vampirism is a result of sadism, masochism, and abuse.  One mortal human with the urge to drink the blood of another finds a masochist who allows it.  Later, that masochist develops his or her own sadistic desires, and having learned vampirism, falls back on it as their own preferred method of inflicting pain and suffering:

"...Nor is his addiction in any way lessened by the knowledge that what he does not only humiliates his victim but may even kill him, for he is seeking, among other things, to revenge himself on his kind for his own predicament and his own sufferings..."

Leaving aside the implied consensual nature of the beginning of this chain, by the end Holmstrom's explanation resembles some basic things we now understand about why victims of child molestation often become molesters themselves in adulthood.  And Fountain, as vaguely twisted and possibly even cruel as he may have been in his youth, is a classic victim of abuse, psychological abuse from Goodrich that in turn makes him an easy mark for the vampire (there is one) in Greece.  It also sets him up for a grand act of rebellion, which takes two forms, and strangely combines what Simon Raven constantly argued as a way of life, the only way of life, and either the dark extremes of following his advice, or the dangers of not doing so at all.  The final stretch of the novel could be read either way, though I suspect Raven only meant it to be taken as a caution against not doing as he did.

Nevertheless, Doctors Wear Scarlet is a fascinatingly conflicted novel (notice, too, for instance, how often the topic of homosexuality is broached, and how often it is denied, though never condemned).  And for all it's psychological and philosophical richness, it's never less than a good read, a good yarn, with adventure, a lot of humor, death and horrible retribution.  It deserves to live on.

4 comments:

Tom B. said...

Fascinating. I've ordered this as well as the first omnibus volume of Alms for Oblivion.

iain said...

"informal poll of well-read UK natives I know didn't turn up anyone familiar with Raven's books,"
Oh dear. I suggest you find some other UK natives to befriend. *Properly* "well-read" ones. Starting with me, perhaps.

bill r. said...

I promise you, they're well-read people. And since writing this I have encountered another person who has read Simon Raven, but he's an American. I don't know if this even counts.

iain said...

Heh heh. Of course it counts! It's just odd that he is apparently forgotten, given that Raven wrote a couple of much-loved British TV series (The Pallisers and Edward & Mrs Simpson); perhaps you polled younger Brits? Raven was quite a cultish literary figure in Cambridge in the late 1960s/early 1970s. DWS was a particular favourite. Also, DWS was made into a dire muddle of a movie called Incense for the Damned (American title: Bloodsuckers) and just yesterday I was delighted to read on Marianne Faithfull's f/book page that she just read and recommends Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch... and Doctors Wear Scarlet. So Raven still has that cultish readership. As I type, Brother Cain, One Inch of Fortune, The World of Simon Raven and Doctors Wear Scarlet glare at me from my bookshelves!
Very much enjoy your blog, btw.

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