I’ll be watching this today

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

(Abel Meeropol)

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The Pyramid in the Arctic

Is there anything more fascinating than abandoned towns? There’s a sense of drama in a hollowed-out building that is hard to replicate. Horror novels are full of them, dystopian fiction and sci-fi have seen their share, and post-apocalyptic fiction is nothing but the shells of yesteryear.

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Pyramiden (the Pyramid) was a small coal-mining town on Svalbard, which is an island in the Arctic Ocean. Swedish-built in 1910, Pyramiden was bought 17 years later by the Soviet Union and kept in business until 1998, when the coal ran out. At one point, the town had 1000 inhabitants, a petrol station, swimming pool and a library with Tolstoy and Dostojevsky. Now, the streets have been empty for nearly 20 years, save for the odd polar bear.

Houses were left in a hurry. They remain much the same as in 1998, decay slowed by the frigid climate. There are long-dead flowers on the windowsills, faded posters on the walls and rusted swings in the playground. The old coal mine is still in place, with its buildings, coal cars and tracks. It could remain like this for decades, if not centuries, if left undisturbed. The cold keeps the town preserved.

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While Svalbard is Norwegian territory, Pyramiden retains the feel of a Russian outpost. Signs are written in cyrillic and latin script, and an old bust of Lenin is silently surveying the settlement from the front of the old culture house. Tolstoy and Dostojevsky are still on the shelves.

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Pyramiden is named for the pyramid-shaped mountain by which it lies. It is 50km north of the nearest city, Longyearbyen (which is the world’s northernmost settlement with more than 1000 inhabitants), and there is a research station with 30-130 inhabitants about 100km to the west. Transport is by snowmobile or boat, weather permitting. And the weather does not always permit.

Part of the appeal of this place is its location, miles from everything else, tucked away amidst freezing water and held in the grips of permafrost. Svalbard holds vast expanses of glaciers, a fair share of mountains and fjords, and populations of arctic foxes, reindeer, whales and migrating birds. Much of the land around Pyramiden is protected in the form of two national parks: Nordre Isfjorden (which roughly translates to Northern Icefjord, see photo below) and Sassen-Bünsow Land National Park. I’d probably go for the landscape and wildlife alone, even without the added attraction of a ghost town.

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There is a small, recently opened hotel in Pyramiden, so staying in town is possible. While it at first seemed disappointing to have a human presence in the abandoned place (although not a permanent settlement), a small haven for visitors is probably not a bad idea given the remoteness and climate. Also, there’s the polar bears to consider… I’m not an avid camper nor much use with a firearm, so Hotel Tulip may be just the ticket after all.

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A few days at the Tulip could spin enough ideas to fuel horror stories for a decade. Whatever your monster of choice, I’m sure this town can house it. A ghoul? Sure – it is a ghost town after all. Disease? Absolutely – imagine frozen contagions freed in a thawing landscape. Vampires? Of course – this is north of Barrow, Alaska, and darker than 30 days of night. Sea monsters? The waters are dark too, and cold. Land monsters? Already have those if you count the polar bears. Below ground? There’s the mines. Dystopia? Well, if you needed a place to hide from the horrors of the world, or stage the revolution, this is pretty far way. I might just put it on the wishlist for 2017.

 

(All images credited in title (hover for information and links). Photos from (in order) ser_is_snarkish, Frode Ramore, Bente Nordhagen, Bjoertvedt, Jerzy Strzelecki and google maps).

Book Review (sort of): Dracula

Everybody knows Dracula.

Stoker’s novel of 1897 is a part of the establishment in the modern horror menagerie, and its caped monster nothing short of iconic. After 100+ years and multitudes of adaptations, a synopsis would be pointless. But there are aspects of Dracula which may not be common knowledge. Having re-read and done a bit of research on Dracula not long ago, I decided to briefly summarise my thoughts on Dracula in light of the period in which it was written.

Stoker wrote Dracula around the same time that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and H. G. Wells wrote The Island of Dr Moreau. We’re talking the end of the 19th century, and fantastic adventure stories were immensely popular following the success of authors such as Alexandre Dumas and Jules Verne. It’s the age of Edmond Dantès, Phileas Fogg and Rob Roy.

However, unlike some of the other fantastical tales published at the time, Wells, Stevenson and Stoker have a certain theme in common: the notion of something beastly resting in the human lineage and nature. Dr Moreau, for example, plays heavily on the fear of degeneration, of man becoming lesser, and Jekyll/Hyde remains the poster child for man/beast dualism to this day. Dracula is animalistic, able to transform into animals at will. This is contrasted with his cordiality and perceived humanity at the beginning of the story. The horror does not lie in Dracula being a beast, it lies in the dualism: Dracula is a gentleman and a beast. Incidentally, these books emerge not long after the publication of Darwin’s Descent of Man (1871), which may to some extent explain the fascination with the beast in the late Victorian era.

No place in the text is this ‘beast beneath’ more apparent than in the description of Lucy, Mina Harker’s friend, turning into a vampire. Her appearance becomes more animalistic as her personality changes.

“…she drew back with an angry snarl, such as a cat gives when taken unawares; then her eyes ranged over us. Lucy’s eyes in form and colour; but Lucy’s eyes unclean and full of hell-fire…”

It is no accident that it is Lucy who is seen turning into this creature. Lucy, who, despite starting as a pure woman on par with Mina, is described in quite sexual terms. This female sexuality, even if not (initially) acted upon, was threatening for Victorian conservatives, particularly in the light of the rising suffragette movement. Lucy is therefore an obvious target for corruption in the book, and her fall could be a comment on the moral failings of the ‘new woman’ of the Victorian age, i.e. women availing themselves of the education and employment that had previously been reserved for men. That said, Mina herself embodies some of the qualities of the ‘new woman’, however she matches these with virtually no sexuality, a “man’s brain” (as stated by Van Helsing) and pronounced maternal behaviour. Mina is thus a more acceptable version of the Victorian ‘modern’ woman – someone who participates almost equally in society but maintains the existing social structures of subservient wife and mother.

And then there’s the madness aspect. Insanity was a fixation of the Victorian society, with the public fearing both the lunatics (the term of the time) and being accused of being a lunatic. The time was rife with stories of wives locked up in asylums by husbands wanting to get rid of them, and there was a growing sense that treatment should be humane and founded in emerging scientific advances (partly established through the Lunacy Act of 1845). The Woman in White (1859) by Wilke Collins is a mystery novel that deals with this particular topic, and the book enjoyed great popularity in its time. In Dracula, there is not only the madness/vampirism of Lucy, but also the asylum-bound Renfield. Again, the focus on insanity highlights the dissonance between the ‘disordered’ individual and the structured society, but in this case it is not limited to one gender. Many writers at the time, including the Brontë sisters and Dickens, used madness in their works, and both men and women were under scrutiny. Renfield and the asylum administrator, Dr Seward, are both given a great deal of attention by Stoker. Through this we get not only an example of the Victorian fascination with lunacy but also of the scientific and medical advances in dealing with it. In Dracula, however, science falls short in the face of the horrors of old, suggesting that these modern inventions also had their limits.

Finally, there is the fear of the other, the foreign, plaguing Victorian society. Dracula certainly encompasses this anxiety of immigration, of danger approaching from abroad. Immigrants from Eastern Europe, which was also Dracula’s origin, were particularly vilified. Incidentally, during the hysteria surrounding Jack the Ripper in 1888, the genteel population readily blamed the barbarous murders in Whitechapel on the growing Jewish community in East London. Published less than 10 years later, Dracula emerges as an echo of the brutal murders, their (presumed) alien origin, and Stoker even establishes a lair for the count near Whitechapel upon his arrival in London.

There are many ways of reading Dracula and certainly more educated interpretations of the text, but I am always a bit sad to see some of these old Victorian anxieties get lost in modern interpretations.

Sources: The British Library: Dracula – the Victorian Vampire (Greg Buzwell) and Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (Sarah Wise).