Gay Gothic: A Review of David Storey’s ‘Radcliffe’

Radcliffe

The front cover for the original 1963 edition. Radcliffe is currently available through Valancourt Books but for the sake of saving a few bucks I bought an old copy.

When Valancourt Books first announced it would be reprinting David Storey’s novel Radcliffe, I was intrigued by it for two reasons. Firstly, its title seemed to reference the 18th century gothic novels Ann Radcliffe, of whose work I am particularly fond, and, secondly, the romance at the center of the story is between two men.

My personal library includes few works by queer others and none involving same-sex relationships. That’s an odd omission for any gay man to make and so when I came across Radcliffe I knew I would have to read it. After all, it combines two of my favorite things–gothic motifs and gay sex! What could be more sublime?

With any old novel that centers around same-sex relationships and homosexuality, I often worry how respectively it will treat it subjects. Our current understanding of sexuality has changed, as has our comfort with depictions of same-sex intimacy in media. I fully expected Radcliffe to confirm some of these expectations and in some respects it has. Its understanding of homosexuality, expressed at the end of the novel by the protagonist in a courtroom testimony, is outdated, cringe-worthy, and bordering on homophobic and sexist. Through the the protagonist, Storey describes homosexuality as an artistic love superior, rather than equal, to heterosexuality; that it is an uniquely masculine love that is responsible for law, art, politics, and religion. (Depending on your view of these four domains of society, that might not be counted as a virtue.) It’s an unfortunate scene that is both harmful and unnecessary to the story. However, because it comes up at the end of the story and plays only a small role in the conclusion, I am somewhat willing to overlook it for the sake of the excellent story that precedes it.

Early events in the novel also suffer from it use old gender-related stereotypes often attributed to gay men. The two men, Leonard Radcliffe and Victor Tolson, are opposites of each other. Leonard is affluent and effeminate, while Victor is working class and masculine. This theme is established early in the novel, when the two characters are school children, and unfortunately relies on old stereotypical assumptions about queer men but this is thankfully a minor problem and is ameliorated by how it expands on this theme later in the plot. Their differences, both social and personal, create conflict between the two men, who feel very different about their attraction to each other because of their class status and personal motivations. This is where the gender theme become more relatable. Leonard has the freedom to be more motivated to embrace his sexuality because his femininity makes him stand out, whereas Victor’s masculinity allows him to pass for straight and fit more inconspicuously into heternormative social group. Leonard’s affluence also buffers him against the impact of discrimination and stigma, whereas Victor can easily lose his livelihood and any future opportunities if his sexuality becomes known. Storey never goes too deeply into this theme but it works with the tragic structure of the story.

The romance between Leonard and Victor is fraught with conflict and their sexual tension is often borders on sado-masochistic. Their first sexual encounter is quite sweet, as they share a bed during a cold night. Naturally, their encounters become more sexual as the plot progress and Storey handles these scenes in an compelling manner. Sex isn’t exactly an easy thing to describe in fiction without it coming across as “porny” but Storey’s poetic prose effectively avoids this and enhances the eroticism of these scenes.

The plot focuses mostly on human horror but occasionally strays into a suggestive kind supernatural terror, similar to the ambiguous tone of Shirley Jackson’s stories. While there are no ghosts or monsters, Leonard perception of reality is occasionally distorted in a strange manner that seems to be linked to his family’s decaying ancestral home. It works in a brilliantly unnerving way and is perfectly supported by Storey’s elegant, poetic prose. It also never undermines the human horror, which is consistently effective throughout the novel. To contemporary readers, these plots twists may not be quite as capable of surprising or shocking as they once were but they are genuinely disturbing, provided that you care for the characters and their fates like I did. Storey finds a good balance between the uncanny and the horrific reality of human cruelty. I only wish that he had given the uncanny elements more weight towards the conclusion of the novel, where a more enigmatic ending would have felt more appropriate than the anti-climactic scene in the courtroom.

Radcliffe is a beautifully written and intriguingly told gothic tale about unrequited love. As a gay man, it was hard for me not to find the romantic and erotic elements very compelling. For all of it horrific and beatific merits, Radcliffe is marred by outdated attitudes towards gender and sexual orientation but, while these problems cannot be ignored, they never quite rob the narrative of it power. Despite its shortcomings, I found it a rewarding read and particularly enjoyed the novel’s poetic prose, moody atmosphere, and effective eroticism.

 

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The Sweetest Goth Album Ever: A Review of The Spiral Sacrifice

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When Anna-Varney Cantodea (Sopor Aeternus & the Ensemble of Shadows) first announced The Spiral Sacrifice last year, I had mixed feelings. While I was eager to receive a new Sopor Aeternus album into my life, I feared that The Spiral Sacrifice would, like its predecessor Mitternacht, reiterate familiar ideas she had already done better on previous releases. In part, The Spiral Sacrifice does exactly this but it revisits old ideas with a fresh perspective. While it isn’t quite as innovative as previous albums, The Spiral Sacrifice is nevertheless an accomplished work that is consistently engaging and quite touching.

Listening to The Spiral Sacrifice evokes in me a perculiar sensation of deja vu and this is, at least in part, due to the fact that most of its contents are revisions of songs that previously appeared on The Inexperienced Spiral Traveller (1997) and Voyager: The Jugglers of Jusa (1997). It is well known among fans that Anna-Varney abhors both of these albums and has long desired to remake them. When she announced the crowd-funding campaign on FaceBook in 2017, she made it clear that the remake would be a loose interpretations and not necessarily resemble the original material. Even some of the lyrics, she promised, would be omitted entirely.

The result is, at least for me, a refreshing interpretation of her older songs. The new arrangements are beautifully performed and are great improvements on the originals, many of which are monotonous and sound painfully cacophonous. The Spiral Sacrifice expertly avoids this and breathes new life into the old songs, blending their playful folk and medieval inspired melodies with the unearthly sounds of the theremin into an more fluid and enjoyable compositions. The only thing I could possibly say against the music is that I wish that some of them had been longer than they are. Many of the songs are, perhaps, usually short for a Sopor Aeternus album but this is a minor problem.

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The sumptuous collectors edition.

While most of the songs are based on old material, I was surprised to find and even a little disappointed to discover that all but one set of original lyrics were performed. This disappointed was particularly painful because I had hoped for a new version of Totenlicht, one of my all time favorite Sopor Aeternus songs, but after some thought I realize this is likely for the best. One of the problems that plagued The Inexperienced Spiral Traveller and Voyager were its lyrics, which were so cumbersome and awkward that Anna-Varney had to force them to work with her melodies. The Spiral Sacrifice left the most awkward lyrics behind, which was most of them apparently, and even omitted all of the original titles, which is fine since most of them would not have made any sense without their original lyrics and some were quite silly anyway. Plus, as Anna-Varney said herself, she would not include any lyrics she longer identified with and I can’t fault her for that.

The new lyrics are a different matter and are another reason for my eerie sense of deja vu. The album revisits a familiar topic from past albums, particularly Les Fleurs Du Mal and Mitternacht, and explores her feelings towards the object of her misplaced affections and how they have changed with time. In contrast to every other Sopor Aeternus album, The Spiral Sacrifice does not tell a story. Only one song even comes close (The Broken & Shattered Moon) and it’s a fairy-tale about a fairy who curses Anna-Varney’s childhood self with ugliness. It’s an unusual form for a Sopor Aeternus album but it works well here. Most of the lyrics are well written and poignant. A few restate sentiments she has expressed before and can feel redundant but they are conceptually consistent with the overall themes of the album and are even expressed better here than previously.

What ultimately saves The Spiral Sacrifice from feeling utterly redundant is the new insight Anna-Varney brings to her past. When you love a Man, If I could go back in TimeLet me say it now, and Through your Eyes poignantly reexamine her failed relationship and finds meaning in the pain. Although she was ultimately hurt by her partner, she nevertheless values the moments of genuine affection he gave her and expresses the desire to see in herself the qualities that he found so attractive in her. For an album that is grounded in sadness, anger, and frustration, it is a surprisingly sweet note to end on, and leaves the listener with a warmth that is rare for a musician known for her dark, despairing songs.

The artwork is striking eerie and is, at least in my personal view, some of the best she has done in recent years. The imagery does not directly illustrate the music, as in many previous releases, and instead captures the motions of a Butoh-like dance that perfectly compliments the complex emotional journey expressed throughout the album. I prefer it to the drawn illustrations that accompanied her last album and appreciate the focus with which she conceived the artwork. It’s quite straightforward and simple, a stark departure from the standards of previous examples, but it keenly demonstrates that less can indeed is more.

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My personalized and signed letter of authenticity.

Now, something has to be said for the packaging. Sopor Aeternus albums tend to be released in rather luxurious formats and The Spiral Sacrifice is no exception. In fact, the packaging for this new release might be some of the best yet. I ordered a copy of the very fancy Supporters Edition box-set, which comes with the the album on CD and vinyl, an art book, a signed and personalized letter of authenticity, a 7″ picture disc vinyl, and a t-shirt. The box-set is exceptionally well-made and may even be superior in quality to previous physical editions. I suppose it’s something you have to feel to believe. The letter of authenticity is a nice addition, since Anna-Varney signed each with the name of the recipient. I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was to see my name (even my middle name) written out in her beautiful, almost calligraphic handwriting. Other editions, including a standard CD book and vinyl set are also aviable, and are, except for a few details, identical to those contained in the Supporters Editions box-set.

 

Quern: Undying Thoughts (Review)

3a7279aa4d6b088dca7c8dacae8e6cfe23372182e9927c8c5ea0bfdfc52a9cedQuern came highly recommended by other Myst fans. From what I could see in the trailer and screenshots, I could understand why they would. Quern shares several key traits with the original Myst game–it is set on a remote island, riddled with puzzles, and shrouded in a mysterious story that is mostly told to the player through scattered journals and letters–but it’s similarities with Myst are superficial and cannot save it from its superficial puzzle design and heavy-handed storytelling.

The puzzles in Quern aren’t bad. In and of themselves, they make perfect sense and can be fun to solve but most are not well-integrated into the story and feel tacked on. While this issue does not break the game, the more poorly integrated puzzles add little of value to it and feel more like a chore to solve than a delightful challenge.

When puzzles are well-integrated into a story, they tell us something about the characters and the worlds they inhabit. In Riven: The Sequel to Myst, several of the puzzles directly involve the various machines used to generate power on the islands. These puzzles tell us about how the antagonist, Gehn, has fundamentally transformed Riven by plundering its natural resources and manipulating it native inhabitants to fuel the production of his linking books. These puzzles are not meaningless obstacles for the player to solve but are an integral part of the world and support the moral conflict at the heart of the story. Well-integrated puzzles allows us to interact with a story more meaningful and enhances or experience of the game.

As is they are, the puzzles tell us little about the island or its various inhabitants. Many of the puzzles are explained away as the result of the anthropologist’s well-developed technical skills but this explanation feels flimsy, especially when the anthropologist neglects to label any of the ingredients in his laboratory.

But, of course, to integrate puzzles into a game well you must also have a good story. The story takes place on a mysterious island that exists out of time and grants eternal life to anyone who inhabits it. Throughout the game the player picks up pieces of a journal kept by an anthropologist who inhabited the island previously. In these journals he relates how he spent his unlimited time studying the island, expanding his knowledge of the natural world and mastering his technical skills, until he exhaust everything the island has to teach him and becomes restless.

Near the end of the game, the player learns that other past inhabits suffered the same intellectual fate but with far greater consequences. Instead of being a lone researcher, like the anthropologist, these other inhabits came to the island in search of a means to save their home world from utter destruction but when they eventually return home, solution in hand, they become arrogant and power hungry. Although they save the world from destruction, their feel of intellectual superiority leads to civic unrest and social collapse. It’s a grim story that feels unsettlingly anti-intellectual for a game built around puzzles. I’m not sure if this was intended by the developers but with such a heavy-handed, allegorical story it’s difficult for me to interpret it any other way.

Quern is a decent puzzle-adventure game, offering a variety of challenging puzzles that are consistently fair to the player but occasionally feel tedious due to poor integration to into the game world. The story is, as other reviewers have put it, forgettable and possibly even regrettable considering its anti-intellectual message. I would recommend Quern to anyone with an interest in traditional logic puzzles but I cannot recommend it to anyone looking for a more substantial experience similar to those offered by the Myst series.

Bibliomania: Oxford English Novels

From the 1964 to 1976, Oxford University Press printed a series of classic English-language novels. The Oxford English Novels series comprised many well-known and lesser known classics spanning nearly two centuries. For those familiar with the current and long-running Oxford World’s Classics series, the Oxford English Novels is very similar. They are scholarly texts, including informative introductions, extensive notes, and bibliographies. The texts themselves are excellently put together, as one would expect of the Oxford University Press, but what really interests about this series is the format. Unlike the soft-cover World’s Classics, the Oxford English Novels series are all hardcover and feature colorful dustjackets.

The Oxford English Novels series first came to my attention while I was searching the internet for a hardcover edition of The Mysteries of Udolpho. After a few dispointing purchases, I finally stumbled across the website for a small used book store in Oakland, which had a number of book from the series on sale. Plus, unlike most sellers on Amazon, they provided photos of each book. I bought their copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho with little hesitation and in a few weeks times, I also bough their copies of Pompey the Little, The Old English Baron, The Italian, Emmeline, Vathek, and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 

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Later on, I collected other editions from Amazon and other online booksellers, including: A Journal of the Plague Year, The Old Manor House, The Castle of Otranto, Melmoth the Wanderer, The Man of Feeling, Mary and The Wrongs of Woman, and The Female Quixote.

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Many of the books from this series can be found easily online and for good prices but more popular works tend to be rarer and go for high prices when they are. (I was very lucky to find Melmoth the Wanderer for $25 and I’m very glad I got it when I did.) They are worth getting when the price is right and if you, like me, love beautiful hardcover editions.

Marchmont (Book Review)

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A new edition printed by Whitlock Publishing

Marchmont is utterly unlike any of the other early gothic novels I have read thus far. Charlotte Smith adopts many of the typical characteristics of the gothic (such as a female protagonist, eerie settings, ruinous castles, ghosts, and unscrupulous villains) but executes each of these elements with a realism unrivalled by her contemporaries and uses them to explore and the social and political problems of 18th century England.

The novel opens on the near idyllic life of Althea Dacres, who lives with her unmarried aunt Mrs. Trevyllian. Together they enjoy a solitary life away from the shallow distractions of high society but when her aunt becomes ill and eventually dies, Althea is sent to live with her father and step-mother and soon encounters many new dangers–the first of which is marriage. When Althea refuses to marry a man she can neither love nor respect, her parents punish her by sending her to live in the old, isolated, and partially ruinous Eastwoodleigh castle. As cliché as this might sound, Smith fleshes out her story with my realistic details and creates an effectively eerie setting.

What makes Eastwoodleigh castle so eerie is not the possibility of it being haunted but its desolate condition and the sequence of events that robbed it of all its comforts. Once the home of a proud and illustrious family, the castle stands as a sad testament to the usurious practices of debt collectors. Falling on hard times, the Marchmont family borrows a considerable amount of money in order to keep their ancestral home in the family but when they are unable to pay back this money they are forced to sell many of their personal belongings, stripping the castle of it finer furnishings and selling all the old-growth trees for wood. Their efforts ultimately come to naught. They are sued by their creditors and hounded by an unscrupulous lawyer called Vampyre, who exploits their ignorance of the law to the benefit of his client and to the ultimate ruin of the Marchmont family. Lord Marchmont takes his own life (a controversial detail Smith subtly alludes to), leaving his wife and three daughters living in poverty while his only son struggles desperately to earn money to support them.

To Althea, Eastwoodleigh castle initially presents itself as refuge, rather than as a punishment, and appeals to her romantic sensibility. She doesn’t mind a simply, solitary life away from society, as long as she has her aunts books and has some company. Even her step-mother tries to scare her into submission by mentioning rumors of the castle being haunted, Althea is hardly perturbed. Yet when she arrives she soon discovers that her new home is not exactly the romantic refuge she had envisioned. Her isolation and the dreary conditions of the castle begin to oppress her spirits and work its devious magic on her imagination. While Smith does employ the explained supernatural occasionally throughout her novel, they are often slight and quickly explained away. At first, these suggestively supernatural scenes seem disappointing but by rationalizing the supernatural Smith pulls the reader back down to earth and reminds them of the real dangers threatening Althea—namely poverty, ignominy, and Vampyre.

Vampyre is not the typical villain of gothic literature. He is a mere attorney, old and half-blind, but he knows how to exploit others to his and his client’s benefit and has few qualms about doing so. In her introduction, Smith mentions that Vampyre is based on an attorney she herself hired to represent her in the long, drawn-out legal battle over her father-in-law’s legacy. From other sources I have read, I understand that this attorney deliberately misinformed her and needlessly prolonged the case in order to change her more for his services. She also points out, in her introduction to Marchmont, that Vampyre is a softened portrait of the actual attorney because his “most hideous features are too offensive to be painted in all their enormity.” (Considering the nefarious deeds Vampyre commits in the novel, I shudder to think of the “offensive features” Smith only alludes to.) Although Vampyre’s many crimes never excel to the gruesome deeds of other gothic villains, Vampyre is fearful nonetheless, not only because he is powerful, but because he knows, as Smith reminds the reader throughout, that the legal system is designed to benefit the few and the affluent at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

Althea fears Vampyre and his henchman, knowing well that her own situation is very precarious, but she is not afraid defy convention for the sake of what she believes right and true. When Althea discovers that Edmund Marchmont is indeed hiding in Eastwoodleigh castle, she considers the social consequences of her, a young unmarried woman, remaining within the same house as a young, unmarried man but ultimately determines to defy social norms despite the consequences in order to help a friend in need. Having been essentially abandoned by her only family, she reasons that she owes little to the rules of a society that has utterly resigned any responsibility to her well-being and therefore can no longer obligate her to follow its arbitrary rules when they conflict with her altruistic values. Smith imbues her protagonist with a strong, independent mind and, much like Ann Radcliffe, uses the gothic genre to explore how gender norms often disadvantage women socially.

Eighteenth century gothic novels are a mixed bag. Some are masterpieces of suspense and imagination, others are more shock than substance, and many more are poor imitations of more popular works but Marchmont stands out to me for the same reason Emmeline (also by Smith) did. Her characters feel so real and react to the world with a touching honesty. The problems they face reflect those that many people faced at the time when Smith wrote it, that she herself suffered through and never really overcame. It’s hard for me not to sympathize with her them and their plight or to recognize that the world is still haunted by the same ominous specters of vampiric greed that menaced many in the 18th century.

Smith’s works have long been neglected and have only recently received serious critical attention. In fact, when I was first introduced to her work, I was lead to believe that her later works were inferior to her early first novels but after reading Marchmont, her ninth novel, I simply cannot believe it. Marchmont is a well-written gothic romance that addresses the social problems of the 18th century with both great intelligence and wit. It won’t necessarily thrill you with suspenseful terror or shock you with gruesome horror but it will show you an oft forgotten political depth to the gothic that is still be relevant today.

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Marchmont is currently available in an affordable paperback edition (pictured above) from Whitlock Publishing. Although the Whitlock edition does contain a number of typos, they do not interfere with reading, it is a welcome sight to see among the many cheaply produced, over-priced reproductions that proliferate like rabbits on Amazon.

Dream Daddy (Video Game Review)

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When I first heard of Dream Daddy, I was immediately intrigued by the game’s theme (dating older men, a.k.a. “daddies”) but I was also hesitant. I had not played any other visual novels or dating sims before, and my only exposure to this type of game was through watching a short segment from Coming Out on Top. My concern was that the game would be primarily erotic in nature (Coming Out on Top has nude artwork for the sex scenes) and would lack any real drama but I was pleasantly surprised by Dream Daddy. Its various plotlines are generally well written, offering many genuinely sweet and sexy moments (through without any nudity) and even some beautifully bittersweet moments that make it far more emotionally compelling than a game about dating would be.

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Mr. Vega can lecture me any day …

Without giving too much away, I can say that each of the dad characters have a core conflict that the player can help to resolve. Most of these are relatively minor problems but make for very sweet, heartwarming stories. From the start, I was most drawn to Hugo Vega, or “Dr. Dad” as my husband and I like to call him, initially for his handsome exterior but was utterly sold on his after discovering he writes scholarly papers on 18th century literature. How I would have liked to talk to him about Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith! His plotline is typical for the game and will end very happily if you play your cards right.

Not all the various plots ending happily, however, and add a much-needed element of dramatic, that elements one character story considering and making another rather gut-trenching sad. The better of these two stories is Robert Small’s, a mysterious and potentially dangerous fellow with a heart of gold. His story ends in a poignantly bittersweet manner, appropriate to his character’s history and personal conflict. I ended up loving his character all the more even though I didn’t quite get him in the end (no pun intended). The other dramatic story belongs to Joseph Christiansen, a sweet and perhaps too flirtatious minister with a wife and kids. I won’t go into his story much, because it would give far too much away, but suffice it to say,

“Some men are like chocolate
but most of them are like shit
and if you don’t have the experience
to spot that tiny difference
you’re likely to fall for all of it.”

As wonderful and effecting as the stories are, I found myself a little disappointed by how constrained the protagonist’s character is. While you can determine the character’s appearance (which include “binder bods” for trans men and some make-up for us genderfluid men) and name, the protagonist’s personality is largely decided for you. There are numerous situations where I would have liked to have more reaction options–instead you have no other option but sound like a square.

One other aspect of the game I found disappointing was Mary Christiansen’s character and plot. When you meet her for the first time, she comes across like a mean and hostile person but over the course of the game, the player is given opportunities to provide her some emotional support. They’re wonderful moments because they force you to re-evaluate her behavior and understand that they come primarily from a place of pain. While this does not excuse everything she does, it humanizes her and is important for understanding Joseph’s character. It’s such a pity then that the game never explores her story beyond these few encounters. I would so have enjoyed bonding with her over a few drinks after … oh, well, I said I wouldn’t say anything more about that!

Dream Daddy is a delightful experience through and through despite some minor faults. The romantic moments are sweet, frequently funny, and often sexy, but its more dramatic moments are what make Dream Daddy worth your time and attention (and money). They add a emotional complexity to the various plotlines makes the game more interesting overall and actually intensifies the romantic moments in an unforgettable way.

 

One Year After The Witness: A Short Review

It has been nearly a year since I played The Witness and wanted to give it a second, although short, reconsideration. When I really liked (or hate) a game, it is easy for me to feel confident about my experience with a game. However, The Witness left me feeling rather ambivalent and so it had been harder for be to make a final judgement about it quality.

Here are my final thoughts.

The puzzles are cleverly designed, vary in difficulty, and offer some choice in which puzzles you have to solve to finish the game. However, there are a lot of the, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of them (one is reminded of The Talos Principle). As I stated in my previous review, I think it would have been smart to reduce the total number of puzzles in one play-through by separating them into difficulty levels.

The audio and video logs add little of value to the game. Most are interesting in and of themselves but quoting smarter, more interesting people is a poor substitute for original insight. The game would have been better without these, particularly the longer video logs, and would have been far more consistent with Jonathan Blow original intention to make the game about the puzzles.

The environments are beautifully rendered but environmental puzzles would have made them even more engaging.

Overall, I can’t say that I am unhappy with my experience with The Witness but I would have been far more satisfied if there had been fewer puzzles, difficulty settings, and no quotations. The Witness had the potential to be a great puzzle game but feels critically unbalanced and unpolished. It is very hard for me to imagine going back to play it again as I have with other, better puzzle games.