Beware of Crimson Peak – Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab!

9 November 2015

You shiver in your delicate nightgown, the ruffles fluttering. A draft makes the flames of the candles gutter and snap, your fist so tightly clenched around the silver candleabra that your knuckles ache. What was that sound you heard?

If you’ve recently caught sight of me on my assorted social media accounts, then you’ve seen seen me shrieking and flailing in delight about Guillermo del Toro’s movie, Crimson Peak. It’s a darkly lush gothic romance, full of terror, ghosts, and every gothic romance trope that Guillermo del Toro could layer into it. To say that I loved this movie (and the novelization by Nancy Holder, and the art book Crimson Peak: The Art of Darkness) is to only faintly portray my enthusiasm for it.

When I learned that my beloved olfactory geniuses at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab and Black Phoenix Trading Post had created a line of perfume oils and atmosphere sprays, my flailing glee reached new levels.

They very kindly sent me some of these dark treats for review, and I’m thrilled to be sharing my impressions of the scents with you.
(All text in italics is from the Lab’s descriptions.)

Crimson Peak perfume oils – $30 per 5ml bottle.

Black Moths: A flutter in the darkness: wild plum and blackcurrant with aged black patchouli, vetiver, red rose petal, tonka absolute, and opoponax. Enticing and shimmering, but there’s no warmth here. The scent of flowers gives way to dark earth and dusty velvet, with something faintly medicinal.

Crimson Peak: Snow marbled with blood-red clay, frozen over the scent of decayed wood. Dark earth and damp wood, with an iron wire binding icy white flowers. On my skin, over time, the wood and the iron became more pronounced, with the barest breath of something floral to sweeten it.

The Manuscript: A leather-bound manuscript, ink barely dry. A Gothic ghost tale, personified. The pages are permeated with a preternatural, otherworldly quality – but only slightly, as “the ghost is a counterpoint”; leather and paper and splotches of ink, with a hint of ghostly chill. This is the scent of freshly-cut flower stems, wrapped in old newsprint and tied with a strong leather cord.

Alan McMichael: Bay rum and sandalwood. The smell of an old-fashioned gentlemen’s barber shop. The bay rum is sharp and bracing, but the sandalwood softens it and makes it sweeter and less aggressive.

Edith Cushing: Pearlescent vanilla musk with white sandalwood, grey amber, white patchouli, ambrette seed, and oudh. A delicate, golden scent, with the grey amber and white patchouli lending it a glimmer like dust in a sunbeam. Over time, as the scent enters the drydown stage, the vanilla musk and the oudh become stronger, smelling like the best library you could imagine.

Lady Lucille Sharpe: Faded red roses and a glimmer of garnet with black lily, ylang ylang, smoky plum musk, and black amber. Again, a faded velvet feel to this scent, but with more flowers than I was expecting for poor Lucille. Flowers covered with dust, or sealed behind glass. The plum musk comes through as time wears on, adding an appropriately feral note.

Sir Thomas Sharpe: Black amber darkens a pale fougere. The sweetness and warmth of amber, overgrown with moss, ferns, creeping vines, and every other wildly-growing green thing. As time goes on, this becomes more and more enticing.

Crimson Peak Atmosphere Sprays from Black Phoenix Trading Post, $35 per 4oz. spray.

Lucille’s Bedroom: Lilac water, fossilized black amber, lily of the valley, violet leaf, and oakmoss. More dusty florals, as is appropriate for Lucille’s bedroom. The lily of the valley is the most noticeable, but gives way to the green of the violet leaf and the depth of the oakmoss. The fossilized black amber adds a touch of warmth.

The Cemetery, Many Years Ago: A solemn, pale child standing amongst snow-laden tombs as wet flakes descend from a leaden sky. The smell of snow, fresh-turned earth, and the bitter seasoning of salt tears.

The Workshop: Machinery made magic; the final manifestation of dissolving hopes and clockwork dreams: sawdust and gear lubricant, metal rods shining in golden afternoon light. There’s something golden and amber in this, grounded by the smell of wood shavings and machine oil. Over time, something chilly creeps in, weaving around the amber.

Allerdale Hall: A grand house brooding against the horizon, a silhouette of jutting chimneys and sharp angles silhouetted against the grey sky. Damp wood, earthy clay, and the scent of rain. Exactly what you’d expect a haunted manor house to smell like, actually.

The Sharpe Library: A vast double-height room, crowded with books and glass cabinets. Oil portraits stare down from the walls, and a grand piano plays the ghost of a lullaby. Dry cinnamon, with the barest whisper of vanilla, and everything grounded with a dark wood.

Young Edith’s Bedroom: Beeswax, leather-bound paper, and white gardenias; porcelain and wood, lace and shadow. My absolute favorite of all the atmosphere sprays. The beeswax and white gardenia are sweet and comforting, while the wood and paper smell like a library you want to stay in for hours.

The Black Phoenix Trading Post also has produced Crimson Peak-themed nail polishes, memento boxes, and jewelry. To say that I covet all of these items is, again, to only faintly portray my enthusiasm and longing for these treasures.

If you haven’t had the chance to indulge in lush, terrifying gothic romance that is Crimson Peak — quick! Find a local theatre that’s showing it, and go.

An Important Announcement

4 May 2015

Dear darling Snarklings,

The Lady of the Manners has been dithering over this announcement for a while. This website, the original home of Gothic Charm School, is taking a hiatus from reader questions until around October. Everything is fine, there is no crisis or problem! But there are some other projects of mine that need my focused attention, and I need to take a break in order to do that.

While reader questions are going on hold, there will be the occasional interview or review posted over the next few months. If you do have gothy questions, be sure to search the archives that are packed with over 15 years of articles. Alternatively, you can buy the book (if you haven’t done that yet)!

I am not vanishing from the internet. You can still follow my hijinks over on Twitter, on LiveJournal (remember that? Yeah, I’m still there), and, of course, over on Tumblr.

To sum up: Taking a break from answering questions! Everything is fine! Other important projects to be done! The Lady of the Manners will return in October! In the meantime, take care of yourselves, take care of each other, and treat everyone (including yourself!) with as much kindness and compassion as possible.

With much love,

The Lady of the Manners

Of Werewolves. Werewolves and Goth.

25 February 2015

The Lady of the Manners feels like she needs to state that the question in this edition of Gothic Charm School is one she had never received before. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, or creepy, or unsettling! Just … this isn’t something that people have asked before. It comes from a young spooky creature:

well two things one I love your book and now two my mom is one of the vampire subculture kind of people but she hides it from the rest of our family she also has accepted I’m Goth but I don’t live with her now I live with my gran and she can be judgmental and will not accept it now comes the fact I dress like a werewolf with the ears tail eyes and teeth most people know of vampires in the gothic subculture just not wolves there a little less understanding and I’m leader of a nonviolent pack but my family will not understand this like this I have them read your book but I just don’t know what to do any more I get asked by strangers and I get one chance to make a good impression for Goths and wolves plez help me answering it without the accidently rudeness is a bit hard

The Lady of the Manners will be honest, it took her a few readings of the message before she was able to understand what was being asked, but not because of any distaste or side-eying of the subject, but purely because of the writing style. Punctuation, Snarklings. Punctuation and writing for clarity; learn about them and embrace them.

The Lady of the Manners is NOT saying this out of some sort of scholarly elitism or writing snobbery! Writing is part of communication, and if you want to make the best possible impression with someone you’ve never met, being able to write in a way that is easily understood is important. Something written with no pauses or breaks between sentences comes across as someone quickly blurting out a bunch of information, without stopping for breath or to see if the person they’re communicating with grasps what they’re trying to say. So! Punctuation. It is everyone’s friend, and being able to write a clearly-understood message is an incredibly valuable skill.

With the small writing lesson digression out of the way: You’re right, Wolfy Snarkling, that people are far more aware of vampires and vampyres in the gothic subcultures. (VampYres with a “y” to indicate the people who are part of that subculture, and are not the same as vampire fiction enthusiasts.) The Lady of the Manners isn’t really sure why more people in the gothic subculture don’t identify with werewolves, for they are, just like vampires, a classic example of someone separate from regular society; a monstrous Other who is feared by the rational world. (The Lady of the Manners once had an interesting discussion with some people about the genre divides that were a relatively accurate predictor of your preferred subculture: goths liked vampires, with their elegant menace tinged with decay, and metalheads preferred werewolves, with their tribal loyalty and explosive, semi-feral nature. But none of that is written in stone anywhere, and there is no one particular supernatural creature someone has to like (or identify with) to feel aligned with goth.)

Because you dress like a werewolf, with the ears, tail, eyes (contact lenses, the Lady of the Manners assumes?), and teeth, you are going to attract attention. Most people don’t come across other folks dressed like that, so when they see you, of course they’re going to ask questions. Here’s the thing you need to remember, Wolfy Snarkling: you don’t have to give them detailed answers if you don’t want to. If someone asks you why you’re wearing those things, simply answer, “because I like them,” or, “because I want to”.

You see, you don’t owe them an explanation! Most people asking about someone’s personal appearance aren’t looking for a lengthy explanation, they just want a soundbite. If they do press you for more information, you could answer them with something about how you identify with the archetype of the werewolf, or how you want to have your exterior represent your sense of self. Or merely smile, say, “It makes me happy”, and go on about your business.

Your wanting to make a good impression for goths and werewolves is an admirable goal. However, many people just won’t understand your devotion to the werewolf subculture, and will assume you have a very active imagination, or are involved in an elaborate game of pretend, or their only frame of reference will be sensationalist shock “news” stories about furries. And, the Lady of the Manners wants to make sure that you understand that almost all of those people will think you’re weird.


Own your weirdness. Are you hurting yourself or anyone else? (The Lady of the Manners assumes not, in light of your “nonviolent pack” comment.) If not, then you’re fine; go forth and be true to your wolfy self! Because that’s the big secret, the one that the Lady of the Manners wants to make sure all you Snarklings know:


Who cares what those other people think? You shouldn’t. Be prepared for people not to get it, to make “joking” or mean-spirited comments, but armor yourself with the knowledge that generally, you don’t need to worry about those people’s opinions. Smile politely (but perhaps not a wide smile that displays your fangs) at them, and then ignore them. This is the key to being a happy eccentric of any sort. Yes, you must live in the world, but make sure that you’re doing it on your own terms, and that you’re being true to yourself.

Now, what about the people whose opinions you do need to pay attention to? Family, teachers, co-workers and employers? For school and work, make sure to follow any explicitly-stated dress codes, and work hard at being brilliant. It is amazing how many eccentricities will be overlooked if the eccentric in question is very, very good at what they do. As for family members: try not to get frustrated by them, but make it very clear that this is who you are, this is how you have decided to approach life, and that you are asking them to respect that. And if they don’t, grit your teeth, do what you can to keep family harmony without causing yourself any emotional harm, and focus on when you will be able to live your life on your own terms.

Finally, since you have a pack (who share your ideas)? Turn to them for support, and make it a pack project to craft a clear, concise explanation of what has drawn you all to the werewolf ways, so when you find people who do want more than a soundbite, you have something ready to say. (For example, when people ask the Lady of the Manners about “this goth thing”, she’s able to give them a short explanation involving being an offshoot of the punk subculture, and finding beauty in dark places, with some easy-to-reference examples such as The Addams Family, Dracula, and Tim Burton movies.)

What say you, Snarklings? Do any of you have helpful words for Wolfy Snarkling?
(Comments, as always, are moderated.)

Show and Tell: Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab: An Evening With The Spirits

18 February 2015

Snarklings, you do know about Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, yes? Just in case you don’t: they’re an independent perfume company that specializes in gothic, decadent, and romantic scents. I’ve been a fan of theirs for over a decade, and their ever-evolving concoctions are the reason I am never able to decide on a “signature” scent for myself; how could I choose just one? (Though I will admit, Blood Popsicle from the Only Lovers Left Alive collection is almost my perfect perfume.

The clever olfactory magicians at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab very kindly sent me their collection of scents inspired by 19th century spiritualism and occultism. I’ve always been fascinated by the spiritualist movement and antique occultism, so the notion of exploring those things through the scented genius of BPAL’s vision — Oh! How I swooned!

In the following reviews, the italicized opening text are quotes from the official Lab descriptions:

A Measurement of the Soul — A tactile scent, groaning under the weight of aeons: wild fig, cedarwood, venerable ti leaf, and white sage.

The fig is what strikes first, thick and juicy. Underneath it’s sweetness, the white sage is a layer of dry dust and ash. This is a sticky, luxurious confection, presented in small cedar box to preserve it.

Claircognizance — Absolute and perfect clarity: rockrose, white amber, Corsican immortelle, Siamese benzoin, white sandalwood, and life everlasting.

The rose and amber provide a warm light, with flickering floral sparks from the Corsican immortelle. These make a gilded setting for the flourishes of the sandalwood, while the Siamese benzoin gives just enough of a sharpness to keep everything in focus.

Ectoplasm — A luminous, viscid blend of white amber, lemongrass, white oakmoss, and davana.

Luminous, indeed. This is the scent of white, hazy fog that is bound in satin ribbons that sting and cut. The lemongrass and white oakmoss give the impression of a clarity just out of reach, but the white amber and davana blur the message you’re trying to interpret.

Eusapia — Pale lilacs, white tea, and candle wax.

The last flowers of spring, dipped in wax to preserve them beyond their season, forgotten on a library shelf.

The Fox Sisters — Deception and despair: rose geranium and tea roses with mahogany wood, bourbon vanilla, and apple peel.

The apple peel and tea roses give the impression of innocence and clear-eyed sincerity, but the bourbon vanilla and mahogany wood hint at something hidden, a darkness that gives a sharp outline to the secret of the rose geranium.

Gossips of Ghost Land — Idle poltergeists and truant phantoms loitering in darkened corners and shadowed hallways: black cedar, patchouli, and tea leaf spiked with a tittering cackle of pink peppercorn, mate, and lime rind.

I’ve tried and tried, but I can come up with no better description of this scent than this: slightly bored with the glittering frivolity, you wander away from the well-lit ballroom and discover, at the end of the long hallway, a shadowy library. You run your fingers along the dusty spines of the books on the shelves, and pull out a small volume bound in dove gray leather. When you open it, pressed flowers flutter from the pages to the floor, and the faded ink tells you the story of spurned love and thwarted tempers.

Luminous Phasmatis — A peculiar manifestation of light produced by physical mediums during ectoplasmic séances: otherworldly snaps of ozone glowing with unearthly light.

Lavender, the faintest hint of a mild mint, salt, and ozone. I don’t know how Beth at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab manages to capture the scent of ozone, of lightning-kissed clouds, but she has. I suspect witchcraft. Amazing witchcraft.

Practical Occultism — A Victorian occultist’s incense, invoking the Four Archangels: precious wildcrafted Indian frankincense with myrrh, cassia, sandarac, palmarosa, white sage, red sandalwood, elemi, and drops of star anise bound with grains of kyphi.

I will admit, the name of this scent made me biased. How could I not love something named Practical Occultism? And love it I do. The cassia, star anise, and red sandalwood are bright droplets of light, the white sage and Indian frankincense are eddies of smoke, tracing unreadable calligraphy in the air, while the rest of the notes blend together to create something grounding and steady.

Psychodynamic Discharge — Repressed rage, terror, and subjugated sexuality erupting through fierce bursts of uncontrollable psychic phenomena: black leather and red musk with aged black patchouli, Chinese rose, black pepper, coconut meat, Haitian vetiver, and igneous red ginger.

This is darkness and rage and everything unkind and uncomfortable that we know we shouldn’t acknowledge, yet secretly want to indulge in, if only for brief, controlled moments. Perhaps one should wear this while drinking something virulently intoxicating and reading The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Spirit Board — Redwood and bois de rose with white lilac, dried pink roses, and black tea.

A tarnished silver tea chest, lined with wood, that you find in the depths of a long-abandoned pantry. The tea inside is mixed with the pale petals of dried flowers; it smells enticing, but you’re not sure if drinking a cup of it is a good, or sensible, idea.

Table-Turning — A heavy, tactile scent that thrums with voices from beyond: black polished teakwood, gullies of ectoplasm, and ghostly white musk.

Crackling ozone swirls around heavy, dark wood, in a room that hasn’t seen daylight in a very long time.

Vital Fluid — The breath and tears and pulse of all life; the fluid that flows through all creation, permeating space and time and spirit: olibanum, red benzoin absolute, labdanum, betel leaf, galbanum, mastic, and angelica.

This smells like the torn edges of newly-sprouted leaves and blossoms, sitting in a vase of saltwater. There’s something vibrant to it, but not overpowering. I suspect this is going to be a scent I dab on my temples when I am in the grimy clutches of sleep deprivation; it smells of wakefulness, but not in a jolting, abrupt way. A clear-headed wakefulness, as sparkling as a drop of rain on a blade of grass.

All scents were kindly given to me by the mad geniuses at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

Gothy Valentines!

9 February 2015

Surprise, Snarklings! The Lady of the Manners is finally rousing from her winter hibernation to return to the main Gothic Charm School site! (All right, as those who keep an eye on the Gothic Charm School tumblr know, it wasn’t really hibernation, but more a state of being overwhelmed with a lot of things happening at once.) But that’s not the important thing! The important thing is that it’s time for a new post at Gothic Charm School!

A.R wrote in with a romantic holiday dilemma:

Dear Lady of the Manners,

I was wondering if you had any goth appropriate ideas for gifts and/or dark romantic dates for Valentine’s Day?

P.S I inboxed you this question via your Tumblr but figured I might as well kill two birds with one stone and did not see many posts on the site regarding Valentine’s Day.

Yours Nocturnally,
(A fan of your book since being a 13 year old angsty babybat many moons ago)

This may come as a surprise to some of you, but the Lady of the Manners adores Valentine’s Day. Chocolate! Roses! Pink and red accents to things! Giving silly cards to your friends and loved ones! Yes, it’s overcommercialized; yes, it can make people keenly aware of whatever their relationship status is, for good or for ill; but don’t give into bitterness or despair, Snarklings! Valentine’s Day is for showing affection and kindness to people that matter to you, not just for romantic gestures. Look for the silliest box of kiddie Valentine cards that you can find, then send them to people you think need a spot of whimsy in their life. Send your friends links to pictures of adorable animals that make you think of them. Valentine’s Day is what you make of it, and it’s equally about celebrating friendship and platonic love as it is about romantic love.

But to return to A.R’s question, gothy gift and date suggestions!

For those of you who have some spending money, and are either willing to pay a little extra for rush shipping, or are willing to give your valentine a decorative I.O.U note to let them know their present will arrive after February 14th:

The anatomical human heart ornament from Dellamorte Co. adds an appropriately macabre twist to the traditional “I’ll give you my heart” sentiment.

Sugary skulls from Dem Bones! Sweet and creepy; the Lady of the Manners likes to keep a supply on hand for when her coffee or absinthe needs an extra spooky flourish. Some sugar skulls, a fancy tea cup you found at a thrift store (you can decorate it with bake-at-home china paints for an extra-personal touch), and ta-da! A sweetly spooky gift for your sweetie!

Or perhaps some chocolate brains, made with fair trade cocoa? The Gift Crypt can help you with that!

Offer your valentine a bouquet of black and silver fabric roses from Gwyllion, to show that your affections will not fade and wither with time.

A set of devotional candle labels of the patron saints of goth would possibly earn you goth points (which don’t exist, you all know that) while being appropriately gloomy and romantic.

A bracelet of skulls and roses is an elegantly macabre way to show your affection.

Perhaps a anatomically-correct silver heart necklace would express your feelings?
Of course, mail-order is not your only option!

  • Make your own cards for your sweetie(s)! Because it really is the thought that counts, and even a simple folded piece of paper with a heart drawn on it and a heartfelt message inside is a sweet something to treasure.
  • Paper roses! Pick up some inexpensive paperbacks of beloved books and construct the paper roses from their pages. (The Lady of the Manners has a whole collection of paper roses she’s made from thrift store copies of Dracula and The Vampire Lestat.)
  • A little gift bag, filled with things you know they’d like. This doesn’t have to be wildly extravagant! A paper bag with a hand-drawn heart, filled with books or DVDs that you selected for them (from thrift or used book stores), some packets of nice tea or cocoa mix, pretty bits of lace or ribbon that they could pin onto a jacket — again, the important thing is that you spent time thinking about them to put the gift together.
  • Music. Make them a playlist! Burn it to CD, put the songs on a flash drive to give them, or make the playlist on a site like 8tracks. Songs you think they’d like, songs that remind you of them, music you want to share with them, a playlist inspired by a book or movie you both love — so many possibilities! (The Lady of the Manners treasures the music mixes she’s been given over the years, and even still has some of the actual mix tapes she was given back in the 80s and 90s.)
  • Bake favorite treats! Cookies, cupcakes, brownies, popcorn with fancy flavored salts or sugars — these things are classic gift ideas for some very good reasons, Snarklings!

But what about dates? Special gothy events?

  • A stroll or picnic through your local graveyard. Be respectful, but spending time wandering through the graves, admiring the artistry of the markers and pondering the lives and loves of those resting there, is something that should make any dark romantic’s heart flutter.
  • If the weather is too inclement to have your picnic at the graveyard, hold it inside! There is something quirkily charming about having a picnic indoors; blanket on the floor, dishes of specially-selected nibbles spread around, and no risk of bugs. Plus, an indoor midnight picnic is MUCH easier to organize.
  • Or if you drive, you can pack up some tasty treats and non-alcoholic drinks, and go park at someplace with a lovely view, or at a picturesque abandoned building for a few hours of snacks and conversation. (Be sure to check for NO TRESSPASSING signs, of course.)
  • Go to a local park and play on the swings! Visit an art museum! Find out if your city has any interesting ghost tours!
  • Movie date! No, not to the local theatre (unless you’re lucky enough to have someplace that is showing a classic horror movie), but at someone’s abode!. That way you can control the atmosphere and ambience (velvet throws, pillows, flickering candles, appropriate nibbly foods), and ensure the film is one to your tastes. The Lady of the Manners highly recommends something like Only Lovers Left Alive, The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, episodes of the old Addams Family or Munsters TV shows, or The Corpse Bride for spooky romance.
  • Read to each other. Select some poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Byron, Shelley, or Keats, or unearth classic ghosts or vampire stories, brew some fancy tea or mix up a concoction of sparkling water, pomegranate juice, and rose syrup, light some candles, and while away the hours taking turns reading aloud.
  • What if your special someone lives far away? Set up a Skype call and have your romantic date via the magic of the internet! You’ll still be sharing the experience together, and that’s the most important part.

The Lady of the Manners hopes these suggestions have kindled a dark flame in your spookily romantic hearts, Snarklings. What are some of your ideas for Valentine’s Day? (Besides hitting the post-holiday sales to stock up on half-price chocolate; that’s a traditional event in the Lady of the Manners’ world.) Talk about it in the (moderated!) comments!

Nocturnal House: Prince Lestat

1 December 2014

Go put on your finest velvet frock coats, antique lace scarves and cuffs, and pour yourself a cup of tea or a glass of your favorite libation, Snarklings. Because it’s time for another visit to the Nocturnal House, and OH! What a visit it will be. Because the Lady of the Manners has finally paused in her gleeful dancing around with her beloved cliches and actually gotten around to writing the review:

Prince Lestat, by Anne Rice.

:: The Lady of the Manners hugs her signed first edition once more, sets it on a table, fluffs out her lace cuffs, and then sets aside the third-person frivolity for the rest of the post ::

Let’s make something perfectly clear from the start, Snarklings: I am an unrepentant and unashamed fan of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. The first three books (Interview With the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, and The Queen of the Damned, in case you’ve been hiding in a crypt since 1976) are something I turn to when I am in need of comfort rereading, and I’ve read every book in the entire Vampire Chronicles family. There are some I don’t plan on rereading again any time in the next few decades (The Body Thief, Memnoch the Devil), and there are some that I consider to be hilariously out-of-character fan-fic (Blood Canticle), but yes. I have read every damn one of them. Which means that when the news broke that Anne Rice was releasing a new Vampire Chronicles book, all about my beloved Brat Prince and with a title of Prince Lestat, my incoherent fangirl geebling was at full volume.

My wary trepidation was not at full volume, but it was there, providing a minor key counterpoint to my exclamations of glee. Because my giddy affection for the Vampire Chronicles doesn’t make me blind to the flaws in the books and, in recent years, Ms. Rice’s work was wildly inconsistent in quality. So while I was excited, I was also aware that I needed to brace myself for disappointment. Or, as I kept saying, “I have a low bar for this. Be better than Blood Canticle, that’s all I ask. PLEASE BE BETTER THAN BLOOD CANTICLE.”

It was, thank goodness. It was delightful, and a quality Anne Rice purple prose vampire experience. There’s red velvet everywhere, and flashing preternatural eyes, antique lace, swooning blood lust, and best of all, Lestat returning to his charming, snarky form. I liveblogged my reading over on Tumblr, with the tag THREAT LEVEL: LESTAT, if you want a taste of my hand-clappy glee over the whole thing.

Be warned: from this point forward, there will be spoilers. SO MANY SPOILERS.

Prince Lestat is quality vampire crackfic. There is no other way to adequately describe it. This is not a book you go into with expectations of subtlety, and if you do, you’d better set aside those expectations within the first chapter, wherein Lestat has been sulking, avoiding all the other vampires for years, and has long mental conversations with a probably-crazy telepathic voice. Oh, and goes to Bon Jovi concerts. Also in the first chapter, he meets a pair of vampire scientists who want Lestat to come back to their lab, let them give him a drug that will “allow him to feel biological erotic desire again”, and then let them take a sperm sample. Which Lestat goes along with, because … it’s Lestat. Why not?

(This is what I mean by quality vampire crackfic.)

The book has a whole cast of vampires and vampire elders (some of whom we’ve never met before), mobs of fledglings with smartphones who act like paparazzi if they spot one of the Elders, ghosts who’ve learned to become corporeal, a disembodied voice determined to convince those Elders to wipe out all the fledglings, and Lestat’s mortal son, raised by vampires, who Lestat doesn’t know exists. (Remember the sperm sample?) Plus the mysterious organization of scholars, the Talamasca (“We watch. And we are always there”), vampires we previously thought were dead, and Rose, a mortal girl who was rescued from an earthquake and adopted by her “Uncle Lestan”. (Rose doesn’t get to see her Uncle Lestan as often as she’d like, but he does write her wonderful letters with black ink on pink paper. Yes, I am choosing to interpret that as a subtle shout-out to me. Of course I am.)

The amount of new and previously-just barely-mentioned characters that show up in Prince Lestat is a bit dizzying, but this time they don’t ALL have lengthy monologues about their history and philosophy. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Anne Rice’s meandering character development, but it can get a bit wearing at times. (I’m looking at you, Lasher, Taltos, and Blackwood Farm.) Much to my amazement, the character I expected to have at least two chapters worth of monologues did not hold forth for pages and pages. However, I’m sure the next books — oh yes, the ending of Prince Lestat all but hands over a gilt-edged invitation to more books — will give Amel his chance to Explain All. Which I’m not entirely sure I will care about, but there are also hints of more stories about the corporeal ghosts and the Talamasca, which are things I very much want more of. Plus, of course, more adventures of the Brat Prince of vampires.

Prince Lestat also has delightful gems of snark. Anne Rice has always been good at sharp-edged bitchery gleaming out through the antique lace:

But who am I to police these preternatural nincompoops?

And if you do not know what honor is, then look it up in your online dictionaries and memorize the definition.

But this time around, there’s also a thread of self-aware gentle mockery. For example, perhaps one of my favorite lines in the entire book:

I was down in New Orleans last year and there were so many fake Lestats swaggering around in pirate shirts and cheap boots, you wouldn’t believe it.

The ending to Prince Lestat is right there in the title. For a few chapters I thought there would be a different conclusion (involving Lestat’s mortal son, Victor), but no. Lestat really does become the Prince of Vampirekind, and starts declaring various other vampires to be his Court Composer, the Minister of Vampire Internet Communications, and so on. Along with tasking Marius to create the appropriate ceremony for turning new vampires, with the needed levels of pomp and circumstance. Over on Tumblr I said that Prince Lestat was somehow the cross-over I never knew I wanted between the Vampire Chronicles and Vampire: the Masquerade, and even after a reread, I still hold to that as a semi-accurate description of the book. (Of course, V:tM was … strongly influenced by Anne Rice’s work, but it’s entertaining to see it flow in the other direction, too.)

Do you need to be well-familiar with all of the Vampire Chronicles canon to enjoy Prince Lestat? Actually, no. You’ll need to have read the first three, but having a thorough knowledge of the rest of the tomes isn’t necessary. When events from later books, such as The Body Thief, Memnoch the Devil, or The Vampire Armand, are referenced, there’s enough context given that a casual vampire reader will be able to easily keep up without being bludgeoned with chunks of exposition.

Did the book really need a prefacing glossary titled “Blood Argot”, or an appendix of “Informal Guide to the Vampire Chronicles”? Probably not, but they’re nice extras that add to the details of this long-running vampire soap opera. In the end, I was delighted with Prince Lestat. Is it full of the traditional Anne Rice bombast and cliches? Yes, of course. But that’s part of the charm of the Vampire Chronicles, that they’re part of the modern era of gothic literature canon, full of flickering candlelight, heightened emotions, and creatures that live for centuries, thus having enough time to turn out as badly as their friends and enemies predicted.

In short, I absolutely loved Prince Lestat. I’ve already read it twice since it downloaded to my Kindle and I know I’ll gleefully turn to it when I am stressed, tired, or just in need of self-indulgence.

Okay, other Anne Rice fans, I know you’re out there? Favorite books? Characters? Particularly overwrought moments of literary bombast? Tell everyone all about it in the comments!

Gothic Museum Exhibits! MMA and the British Library

11 November 2014

Oh, how the Lady of the Manners wishes she could get to NYC sometime between now and February 1, 2015! The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire looks to be utterly amazing, and the Lady of the Manners would love to spend a few hours examining the details of the gorgeous, funereal artifacts and fashion.

The exhibition explores the aesthetic development and cultural implications of mourning fashions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Approximately 30 ensembles, many of which are being exhibited for the first time, reveal the impact of high-fashion standards on the sartorial dictates of bereavement rituals as they evolved over a century.

Alas, a trip to NYC is not in the cards for the Lady of the Manners right now. And even if it was, the nice staff at MMA would probably not be thrilled about the Lady of the Manners getting as close as she possibly could to the gowns and accessories, and continually reaching out toward them. But oh! The fabrics! The veils!

However, for all of us who aren’t able to go see the exhibit in person, there are goodies to console ourselves with! Because the Metropolitan Museum of Art Store has a special selection of jewelry, books, and accessories to go along with the Death Becomes Her collection. Look! Look at the jet-bejeweled pretties!

Memento Cross Pendant, $165 US.

Memento Cameo Pin, $95 US.

Those are going to be mentioned in the Lady of the Manners’ annual holiday letter to Sandy Claws, oh yes.

Of course, the Lady of the Manners is also full of picturesque woe and despair that there isn’t a trip to London in her future. Partially because, yes, London is one of the Lady of the Manners’ favorite cities, but also because the British Library has the Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination exhibit running through January 2015.

From Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick and Alexander McQueen, via posters, books, films – and even a vampire-slaying kit – experience the dark shadow the Gothic imagination has cast across film, art, music, fashion, architecture and our daily lives.
Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Gothic literature challenged the moral certainties of the 18th century. By exploring the dark romance of the medieval past with its castles and abbeys, its wild landscapes and fascination with the supernatural, Gothic writers placed imagination firmly at the heart of their work – and our culture.

Pages from Bram Stoker’s manuscript for the original stage play adaptation of Dracula! Horace Walpole’s personal copy of The Castle of Otranto! Left to her own devices, the Lady of the Manners would camp out in the exhibit for a few days, occasionally squeaking with glee.

The array of merchandise the British Library store is offering for this exhibit is delightful, and the idea of being able to purchase black lipstick or absinthe makes her clap her hands in joy. Alas, instead of wandering the library, the Lady of the Manners will just have to console herself with the book about the exhibit.

Have any of you lucky Snarklings visited either exhibit? Or have plans to? Please, leave a comment and Tell All!

Of Musical Conjurings: An Interview with Meredith Yayanos

13 October 2014

The Lady of the Manners has a special treat for you Snarklings! In December 2012, a gorgeously unsettling musical work was released: A Blessed Unrest, by The Parlour Trick. A collaboration between Meredith Yayanos and Dan Cantrell, is an album perfect for spirits looking for a house to haunt, or to soothe a madwoman in an attic. It quickly became one of the Lady of the Manners’ favorite musical works, and is a perfect soundtrack for writing.

A Blessed Unrest cover photo by Ellen Rogers

And now, presented to you after assorted adventures and hijinks with email and schedules: the Gothic Charm School interview with Meredith Yayanos!

What was the catalyst to create Parlour Trick and A Blessed Unrest?

I came up with the name and concept of The Parlour Trick in 2005. I’d known since my teens that I wanted to make some sort of classically-tinged dark ambient record with elaborate packaging and backstory… but I never carved out the time to work towards that goal. I managed to record a handful of demos and scribble down scraps of notation here and there, that was it. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I worked primarily as a hired player in NYC, doing studio sessions and gigging with a bunch of previously established bands. Later, when I moved back to California, I kept that up, but scaled it back somewhat to focus on co-running Coilhouse Magazine & Blog. That entire time I was doing my best to stifle any and all nagging urges to Do My Own Thing™. I lacked the confidence. Honestly, I still do. It’s always been easy for me to let my own concepts stay shelved and contribute to other people’s visions. But at some point in the late 00s, while visiting with Dan Cantrell in Oakland, I somehow worked up the courage to pitch my spooky music to him and asked him to become part of The Parlour Trick. Dan played me this Satie-inspired piano piece he’d composed. It made all the tiny hairs on my arms and neck stand up. I came up with the violin part on the spot, as well as the song’s title: “Half Sick of Shadows”, and shyly showed shared some of my own sketches. Dan was encouraging and supportive, so after I moved to New Zealand, he and I kept brainstorming via Skype and email. Then I’d come back to town every ten months or so to record a few songs. That’s how A Blessed Unrest got made, sporadically, over the course of many years, while both he and I had a whole lot of other stuff going on.

The Parlour Trick: “Half Sick of Shadows” (Starring Rachel Brice) from Theremina on Vimeo.

How did your interests in Spiritualism, 19th century mourning rituals, and the “monstrous feminine” coalesce into needing a musical expression?

Victoriana is fascinating to me — their fear of sex, their preoccupation with death and mourning. Especially all of the munted, manipulative rituals and superstitions surrounding post-civil war Spiritualism! Something very poignant about the level of effort that went into creating these elaborate theatrical gaffs that let people speak to their dead loved ones. Disturbing and sad, too. I’m a sucker for Victorian and Edwardian aesthetics as well, and I’ve been collecting 19th Century ephemera since I was a kid, winding things up and watching them twitch, messing around with outmoded technologies, screaming down the throats of old phonograph horns.

The Mill At Calder’s End – Official Teaser HD from Kevin McTurk on Vimeo.

(Teaser trailer for Kevin McTurk’s puppet film The Mill At Calder’s End, featuring a track by The Parlour Trick called “The Yellow Wallpaper”. Yayanos contributed violin and vocal work to the score.)

I have a lifelong attraction to narratives that are feminine and unapologetically confrontational. A Blessed Unrest definitely plays off that madwoman trope. Concepts of the monstrous feminine tend to dovetail nicely with that. The 1800s spawned an especially poetic strain of Monstrous Femininity. Multiple generations of madwomen locked up in the attics.

For most of recorded history, women have been called mentally ill, or straight-up demonized, merely for rejecting societal norms. Female rage, female dissent, female sexuality… those are all cultural monstermakers. Let’s be honest. Most women still aren’t given enough room to voice educated, dissenting opinions –let alone express our full emotional, intellectual, or sexual range– without encountering a lot of oppressive pushback.

A Blessed Unrest turned into an unexpectedly emotional exorcism for me! It’s basically a haunted house record with a very distraught ghost rattling around inside of it. The same ghost that’s been rattling around inside of me for a long, long time. Hopefully that comes across, somewhat in spite of it being almost entirely non-verbal? I dunno.

Photo of Meredith Yayanos & Dan Cantrell by Audrey Penven

How did you and Dan Cantrell meet?

Heeee. Dan and I met in a park at a padded weaponry game when were fifteen years old, and we’ve been music collaborators for nearly as long. I’ve honestly lost track of how many wonderful projects of his I’ve sat in on over the past decades. He’s a prolific and incredibly versatile artist. I highly recommend his recent solo album, Orphaned Anthems. Gorgeously cinematic, and very quintessentially Dan.

A Blessed Unrest, for me, occupies the same sort of idea space as the “musical seances” that musicians Jill Tracy and Paul Mercer create. Have you heard of those? Would that sort of performance be enticing to you? Who would you want to perform with if you were able to participate in such a thing?

Oh, yes! And yes, absolutely. Wow, what an honor to be compared to those two. Jill’s a dear friend and we’ve performed together quite a bit. I did one of her seance nights at the Edwardian Ball earlier this year. Last June, the two of us teamed up with legendary thereminist Armen Ra to host an evening of unearthly music at DNA Lounge. It was delightful. I first saw/heard Paul Mercer back in 1995 at the Pyramid club in NYC, performing with the Changelings, and that was hugely inspired. More recently, I picked up his solo violin/viola record, Ghosts. It’s beautiful.
As far as folks I’d want to perform with if I were able to go the full-on seance route . . . I think it could be amazing to do something multi-disciplinary. Some kind of salon / bazaar event involving music, dance, visual art, fashion, a photo booth, tarot card-readings, magic tricks, tea service, and some readings of Victorian feminist lit. Off the top of my head, the folks I’d love to work on something like that with include: Shamika Baker, Victoria Victrola, Wren Britton, Paul Komoda, Selene Ahnese, Mildred Von, Angelo Moore, Ellen Rogers, Nadya Lev, Snake Church, Bloodmilk, Star St. Germain, Kambriel, Travis Louie, Laurie Penny, Angeliska Polacheck, Eden Gallanter, and the Vau de Vire Society. Hell, if all of those folks got together without me and did something, that’d be swell, too. I don’t care, I just want to hang out and eat buttered scones!

From my corner of the internet, it seems that there’s been a growing resurgence of interest in Spiritualism, hauntings, mourning rituals, and more classically “dark” or “morbid” ideas. Have you noticed the same sorts of themes and links? What do you think is driving this upswing?

I have! I think it’s fabulous. Pastel goth! Witch house! These kids today. Buttsrsly, I’m in love with so much of the music emerging from current post-gothic, post-cyberpunk, fairy tale sensibilities: Austra, Chelsea Wolfe, Burial, Light Asylum, Zola Jesus, iamamiwhoami, GR†LLGR†LL, Harouki Zombi, Demdike Stare. So much exciting, creepy creativity happening. No idea what’s driving that upswing. Maybe it’s that we have free, unlimited access to a lot of high res scans of archaic imagery and literature that weren’t as easy to track down, before? (I had to dig deep for my Manly P. Hall and Dover books.)

Or maybe we’re trying to create a more tangible sense of authenticity in the Internet age by rubbing a bit o’ graveyard dirt into the atemporality? I have no idea. I’m still getting used to the sight of posh fifteen year olds wearing Goetic Seal of Solomon tank tops with their galactic Blackmilk leggings and Jeffrey Campbell plats to Starbucks. It’s delightfully weird to me, how all of these signifiers of archaic ritual from a wide variety traditions are being remixed and injected into art and discourse in the digital age. A revival of ghosts in pixelated aether.

Were there any interesting or unsettling moments while recording the material for A Blessed Unrest?

Dan and I managed to spook the hell out of ourselves without any help from the spirit world! For instance, we were using wax cylinder technology to build layers of ambiance out of the voices of long-dead musicians. That could get very unsettling. You know how super old recordings often sound frantic, kind of shouty? It’s because they were all yelling into the recording horn to make sure it registered in the wax, and rushing to make sure they’d fit their entire song onto a two-minute cylinder. Turns out that when you sample and layer urgent century-old voices, it gets creepy. And also we recorded ourselves onto this ancient Edison machine. And, of course, I screamed during one take. Hearing that scream played back for the first time was uncanny. It only takes a few minutes for the wax to harden, but the resulting sound feels a hundred years old— it’s as though the notes have had to sluice their way through an ocean of years. By the time the music finally reaches the listener, it’s awash with hisses, pops, clicks and whispers. It’s a machine that turns a warm, breathing human voice into a ghost in less than ten minutes.

Photo by Audrey Penven

The Parlour Trick site says that a music video for The Lady of the House of Love is in preproduction. (Whooo, Angela Carter reference! That’s one of my favorite stories by her.) Are there any details you can reveal about the idea for the video?

One of my faves as well! “She herself is a haunted house.” That entire Burning Your Boats collection is incredible. I can tell you there’ll be some swooping aerial drone footage of the eldritch houseboat community I crash-landed in upon my return to the States after living abroad for several years. And some scenes in the Marin Headlands, where I’ve been spending a lot of time this past year. It’s all coming together extreeeeeemely slowly, while I continue to recalibrate. I have no idea when it will be finished, but I do intend to finish it.

Other friends of mine who are musicians, writers, and artists are all coping with the juggling act required to support themselves and keep moving: how do you balance the demands of “real life” with your creative drive and impulses?

Haha! “IS THIS REAL LIFE?” Oh, god, I don’t know. I’m still flailing. Please let me know if you find someone who’s got it all figured out? Real life, for me, hasn’t been terribly real-feeling for a while now. From the time I launched the Kickstarter for The Parlour Trick album up through now, I’ve been in a weirdly protracted transitional space. These days I’m hauling ass trying to make a stable life for myself in San Francisco, building my savings back up, doing a combination of film scoring, session work, band management, sporadic pet/house sitting gigs, and (don’t laugh!) a bit of ghostwriting to pay the bills. All of which is great, but of course I’m also itching to make more deeply personal creative stuff. If only that would pay the bills! If only I wasn’t still plagued with shyness and doubts about my own work. I will say this: I would be so lost without the love and support of true friends and loyal family. Those bonds mean everything. Everyone’s different, but I’d say that if you’re not a complete hermit, make sure to stay connected to your kin. Prioritize people who treat you with respect and who nurture and replenish you, and be sure to do the same for them as much as possible. Amazing art… scratch that, amazing life happens when you prioritize relationships like those, and do not take them for granted.

Will there be more music from Parlour Trick?

Mmmmaaaybe? I hope so. The response to this material has been more positive and more far-flung than I’d expected, especially given that it was this self-produced, self-managed Kickstarter project with zero official PR. (Mad love to all of my friends and colleagues who gave the record an enormous boost! I blame them entirely.) There are some unreleased tracks that didn’t make it onto A Blessed Unrest: these long, murky, atmospheric pieces that didn’t really work, thematically, with the haunted house concept. Hopefully that stuff will eventually see the light of day. But it’s been several years now since we finished recording A Blessed Unrest. Dan has long since moved on to other projects. The Parlour Trick schema and moniker belong to me, so any new material recorded under that name will be with other collaborators, and therefore quite different from A Blessed Unrest.

What’s your favorite little indulgence to lift your spirits?

A spicy dirty chai and a snickerdoodle and cloud busting on the roof with good tunes in my headphones.

Portrait by Bethalynne Bajema

Thank you, Meredith, for taking the time to do this interview! I hope that someday we’ll be in the same place long enough to sit down, share a pot of tea, and do some plotting!

Purchase The Parlour Trick’s A Blessed Unrest on Bandcamp!

Of Goth Fashion: DIY vs. Off-the-Rack

17 September 2014

Hello Snarklings! The Lady of the Manners has decided to rise from her end-of-summer torpor and resume answering questions. (August is not a good month for the Lady of the Manners, what with the brilliant sunshine, the warm weather, and so on.)

What summoned the Lady of the Manners from her darkened lair in the Gothic Charm School library? A question about the fashion dilemma of DIY vs. buying pre-made goods:

Dear Lady of the Manners,

I had a bit of a question regarding fashion. I tend to buy nicer things from online stores and such, as I enjoy having my nonstandard wardrobe, and I tend to modify garments into something more consistently suitable to my tastes, but I have found that I sometimes garner flak for buying stuff from said online stores. I went through many of the relevant fashion articles you have here, and it looks like we should all ditch the “Gothier than thou” attitude some of us have, but when my retailer choices are pointed out, this sort of thing tends too get on my nerves, as well as provoke the Punk side of me into self-guilt over actually BUYING my gear as opposed to merely making it all.

I did actually have a friend say “oh, you bought from X? That’s a bit of lost respect” when she found out I had ordered from a particular large Industrial-based website. I personally feel that knowledge of the culture is more important than whether you buy clothes from Hot Topic or The Metro (yep, I’m from the Greater Seattle Area!), as long as you are as excited as I am when Joy Division or Siouxie Sioux starts playing, but the nagging thought still, well, nags, that I’ll be sneered at in Elitist snobbery. Do you have any advice on that subject?



P.S Seeing as i am following the Charm School on Tumblr and have seen all the rather nice images of the Lady there, would she have any problem with a bit of idle chit-chat should she be recognized around town (depending of course, on her plans that day; I’d rather not hold her up from an important appointment or event, of course, that would just be rude!)?

Another Seattle gothy type, hurrah! The Lady of the Manners is going to answer your queries in reverse order, as the reply to your postscript is very simple: If you see the Lady of the Manners gallivanting around town, of course you should come up and say hello! The Lady of the Manners promises to let you (or any other Snarklng who comes up to say hi) know if she’s out running errands, is heading to an appointment, or has other time constraints that would keep her from being able to chat. Dropping the third-person mannerism for a moment: I love it when readers of Gothic Charm School say hi! It makes me incredibly happy, and I love meeting you Snarklings! Just, y’know, ask before attempting hugs, please!

Now, as to Faust’s question about buying pre-made goth/punk/alternative goods vs. the do-it-yourself route: Firstly, your “friend” who said “oh, you bought from X? That’s a bit of lost respect” was being rude. Staggeringly so, actually, and the Lady of the Manners hopes that you gave them a chilly stare in response to that comment.

Way back at the start of the goth subculture, there weren’t a lot of off-the-rack alternative fashion options. Spooksters who wanted a fabulous wardrobe of darkness had to search for things that were vaguely close to what they wanted, and then spend long hours painstakingly altering their finds: painting designs, adding trim, buttons, or buckles, slashing, shredding, and stitching things together, and even then, after all that work? Often, the results weren’t quite what one hoped for.

But as the years crept on, some very clever and creative people started making a living by selling gothy goods to other people in our shadowy subculture. People who didn’t have the time, skills, or money to DIY the gear of their dreams were able to outfit themselves, and other goths/punks/rivetheads were able to pay their bills by making beautiful things. In other words, a wonderful spooky circle of commerce! As even more years blew past like fallen leaves, selling alternative fashion became (slightly) big business, which meant there were more options out there, a wider range of prices, and even more opportunities for goths in small towns to get their hands on a few pieces of spooky clothing without going into debt or risking mail-order from far-away countries.

There is NOTHING WRONG with buying ready-made items. Try to be an informed consumer, in terms of being aware of prices, construction quality, and the working conditions of the folks who made the garment, of course! But don’t let any misplaced notions of “scene cred” stop you. Not everyone wants to spend hours working on making their gear. Not everyone has the ability to! And some folks, sometimes including the Lady of the Manners, could DIY something, but decide it would be simpler to purchase a ready-made item.

Also, sometimes buying a ready-made item from a “big name” alternative manufacturer is a convenient starting point for a DIY project. The Lady of the Manners gleefully purchases garments from places like Retroscope Fashions and ChicStar, then spends a few evenings modifying that “basic” item into something custom-styled. Plus there is a lot of alternative fashion cred in taking a basic garment you found from a big-box store and transforming it into something special.

It is well-known that the Lady of the Manners is a fervent fan of the fashion side of goth: having a closet (well, multiple closets) crammed full of sweeping velvet skirts, lace-trimmed frock coats, and flocks of bat-themed jewelry makes her giddy. But fashion isn’t the only part of the subculture, and people who get elitist about it make the Lady of the Manners very cranky. For you’re completely right, Faust: knowing about the music, the literature, and the movies that are part of our morbidly romantic scene is just as important. Anyone who tries to be snippy about someone else’s choice in wardrobe, or who insinuates that you aren’t a Real Goth if you didn’t hand-weave your tattered fishnets from spiderwebs dyed with candle smoke and tears is trying to set themselves up as a Gother-Than-Thou gatekeeper of the scene. And do you know what we do to those types of people, Snarklings? We ignore them. We also perhaps pity them just a bit, because if they think they need to police the scene then they must be insecure, but mostly, we ignore them.

With that, the Lady of the Manners is going to go back to sorting through her button box so she can find the perfect set to replace the boring plain black buttons on the latest black velvet blazer she found at the thrift store. But! In case some of you are in the mood for window shopping, or have the budget to indulge in gothy goodies: here! Have a list of links!

Nocturnal House: Still Life, by Michael Montoure

19 July 2014

It’s a warm summer night, the clear light of a full moon shining through an open window. The whisper of a breeze brings the scents of moss and night-blooming flowers, which mingle pleasantly with the perfumes of candles and old books. At the edge of your vision you spy a flutter of movement — a bat? Or the ghostly gesture of something reaching past you to select a book from the shelves? Welcome back to the Nocturnal House.

Still Life by Michael Montoure was one of my favorite new books of 2013. It’s a story of vampiric transformation, where the hazy romantic trappings that cushion many vampire tales are peeled away, exposing the bare viscera and bones of loneliness, need, and the bloodsucking truths (both metaphorical and shockingly physical) of relationships that have turned toxic.

From the back cover:

When the beautiful stranger who’d promised to make her a vampire turned out to be all too human, burned-out rock star Nikki Velvet was left weak, helpless, and addicted to his blood.

Now, trapped in her new life with him — and with Paul, the vampire she’s replaced as Sylvan’s favorite — Nikki struggles to find a way out before time runs out for all of them …

STILL LIFE is a story of loss, isolation, the things we mistake for love, and the way back out of the dark.

Nikki Velvet doesn’t want to become a vampire because of romantic notions of enlightenment, eternal youth, or love beyond death. She’s seen the wreckage of death’s triumph over love in the wake of the suicide of Gabe, her best friend and musical partner, and she wants to walk away from it all. She wants a promise that death won’t come for her, and she believes that Sylvan can fulfill that promise.

He nodded slowly. “I can arrange that.”

I sank back against the seat, letting go of tension I didn’t know I was holding onto, and I just nodded.

“But first,” he said, “show me you’re really willing. Show me a small gesture of faith.”

I turned to look at him. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small, elaborately engraved metal case. Too small for cigarettes. Business cards? He opened it, held it out to me.
A single razor blade immaculate on a bed of rose petals.
“Bleed for me,” he said softly.

The dusty old saying about appearances being deceiving once again proves to have a steady beat of truth.

My head was throbbing and I could hear my heart beating.

That wasn’t the only heartbeat I heard. I sat up abruptly, off-balance, shoving him away.

“What?” he said, looking unconcerned. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re warm,” I said, trying to stand up.

The faintest frown creased his forehead. “Yes. You said you were cold.”

“No. No. You’re warm.” I managed to get to my feet. “I can hear your heartbeat.”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “ . . . And?”

I pointed a wavering finger at him. “You’re not a vampire.”

“Oh.” He smiled, finished his wine. “I never said I was.”

But Sylvan isn’t the only one who isn’t what he seems …

“Paul,” Sylvan said behind me, his voice sounding tired and resigned, “stop her, please.”

There was a sound from above me —

As the small man swung himself over the balcony railing —

Dropped to the ground in front of me, as gentle as a cat, as silent as a spider.

Nikki returns from death three days later, struggling to make her weak, awkward body clamber out of the bathtub she was left in, and coming to the empty realization that she doesn’t know anything about her new condition. Paul, the quiet, seemingly shrunken man who transformed her, won’t or can’t give her any answers. Sylvan also isn’t interested in giving her answers, but the first sharing of blood dulls the pressing ache of Nikki’s questions.

His blood flowed into my wounds and was pulled inside.

I could feel his hand moving. Feel it from the inside, the way he felt it. His other hand reached around behind my head and I could feel it moving, he ran his fingers through my hair and I could feel my hair, soft and silky, through his fingers.

Electric, the two of us, a circuit closed.

I shuddered, and he shuddered in time with me.

There’s a line you never get to cross, as long as you live. The edge of your body. You’re trapped inside your skin, and no matter how many times you reach out to touch a friend or a lover, no matter how close you hold someone or how fiercely you make love, when it begins, when it ends, and all the moments in between, you are still yourself, alone. I know you knew this. It was in all the love songs you wrote. I think it was the hidden impulse we both had, down inside, that made us take razors to our skin, that desire to open up and let the world in, to let ourselves out, to take that sharp thin line of flesh and erase it.

Here I was, outside at last.

As the nights roll by, Sylvan still doesn’t give her any answers, but the heady rush of his blood is almost enough to silence her unease; when it isn’t, the nagging whisper of uncertainty keeps her in the house. Life with Sylvan is a slow haze, with Paul hovering near the edges. Sylvan takes Nikki out, shows her off to people “in the know” about this shadowy side of the world, but doesn’t show any real concern for her or Paul. Paul, who once was Sylvan’s favorite; Paul, who gives Nikki her first lessons in what the consequences of Sylvan’s neglect can be.

Still Life is a razor-sharp look at what numbness and entropy can do to someone. Becoming a vampire doesn’t fix any of Nikki’s problems or make the heartache of Gabe’s suicide any easier to bear. It just buries those concerns under a suffocating blanket of other needs: the need for blood, the need to navigate Sylvan’s constantly shifting affection and humor so she can be given blood, and the weight of all her unanswered questions, pulling her down into the inky depths.

While Still Life does look into the abyss of depression and the pendulum swings of an uncertain emotional attachment, it’s not a depressing read. For one thing, Michael Montoure’s ability to turn a phrase is amazing:

I was smiling, actually smiling for the first time in days. I felt like I was coming apart and that was all right, I wanted to stand in the middle of it all and spread my arms cruciform wide and be carried away piece by piece, a communion on everyone’s lips.

Also, Still Life feels familiar — it’s full of themes and characters that are woven into the shared subconscious of goths (or anyone else who has ever felt unsure or alone, seeking something or someone to provide that electric jolt of connection), but none of it is a cliche. It’s a novel of emotional truths, dark and bright, dressed up in fangs and post-modern ironic velvet. We’ve all met people like Nikki, Sylvan, Paul, and the others — now we’re able to view them in a fractured mirror and decide how much truth and power we want to imbue those reflections with. Ultimately, Still Life is a book about choices: the fear and indecision that are entwined with choices, how you can become stuck at crossroads of your own making, and how, at the core of it all, making a choice is always better than sinking into passive resignation.

Lines of light, delicate traceries in the ground, connecting different graves like circuits. Sometimes strong and pulsing lines between adjacent graves, and I’d look at the gravestones and see that they’d belonged to husband and wife. But lines spread out everywhere, a network all connected, family, friends, and I knew what it was and if I just put out my hand I could feel a tingle as it passed through me. Love was real and it left traces, left its scars carved in the world, even after death.

And I’d laugh and dance among the lines, arms raised up to heaven, and I didn’t care if anyone saw me or not.

I started to see them a little clearer, after that. See faces and shapes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I hadn’t forgotten about trying to reach you. You were the reason I was still here. But I wasn’t coming here just to visit you, any more. I was coming to visit everyone.

Still Life is a darkly-shining example of what I truly believe is at the heart of being a goth: sometimes the world is an unsettling and uncertain place, but there’s beauty and joy to be found, too. You just have to hang on and keep looking, even if it means visiting beloved ghosts in a graveyard.