"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, June 23, 2017

A sublime sickness: Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven

Doctors Wear Scarlet is the last horror novel I will need to read. The last novel of any kind I will need to read, if truth be told.

Of course, I will reread some old favorites. But as far as novel-length fiction goes, no new (to me) titles need apply. 

For a long time now I thought I missed a fine chance to quit in the summer of 2008, when I called off work for a week to consume The Count of Monte Cristo. But I kept telling myself there was another great novel-reading experience out there, and I just needed to keep going.

For the horror fiction reader, novels are mostly disappointments. The kind of characters and stories needed in order to find a publisher militate against the genre's strengths: the uncanny, the strange wrapped within the familiar, the sharp shock, and economies of means and ends.

Today many horror novels are of limited run from small houses. Horror speciality publishers seem to be in business to generate scarce collectors’ items that can be resold for a mint. Include me out on that, too.

Doctors Wear Scarlet is available inexpensively as an eBook, so it surprises me how little mention it gets among contemporary horror readers. The novel was originally published in 1960, well before the horror boom years, so I assume it was lost to notice under that avalanche. The only reason I ever heard of it was because I read Twilight Zone Magazine in the early 1980s. In one issue Karl Edward Wagner put it on a ten-best list.

Set in 1957, the novel takes place soon after UK imperialism suffered an international defeat in the Suez war. This event, and the historic decline of the old British Empire that it codified, goes unmentioned by author Simon Raven. But within the novel's sun-bleached uncanny atmosphere, there is a marked air of defeat, missed chances, thwarted ambitions, and stunted hopes among all the characters.

The tension of these contradictions is played-out in novel's plot. Richard Fountain, an able and studious student at public school and Cambridge, refers to himself as an impotent virgin. He is at the start of a career in classical archaeology. But Fountain is also passively waiting, looking for a power that will break down his cell of thwarted urges. He resents both the academic career and mate his elders are planning for him, and is ready for another source of authority to impose control.

He finds this other authority while on a year-long expedition to Greece. It will not spoil the novel's plot if I reveal that this authority is the ancient taint of vampirism. At first Fountain loves and abets the vampire. Later, when the two are on the run from police through the Greek islands, Fountain will become its only source of sustenance.

The forgoing has already taken place when the novel begins. In Part One of the novel, Fountain's friend Anthony Seymour pieces this story together. A Metropolitan Police detective and several university acquaintances flesh it out for him. In Part Two, Seymour and two mutual friends travel to Greece. Their plan is to find Richard Fountain and bring him home. Part Three reveals what happens when they succeed.

The brilliance of Raven's novel is not the story per se. The brilliance lies in the telling. A few excerpts below will show the reader much more effectively than any more statements from me.

23 June 2017

No comments:

Post a Comment