Monday, January 30, 2012

Doctors Wear Scarlet – review

Author: Simon Raven

First published: 1960

Contains spoilers

The blurb: Be warned…

Doctors Wear Scarlet has a distinctly macabre and spine-chilling theme. It starts, harmlessly enough, with a young man’s infatuation for a beautiful Greek girl. Their relationship was strange, to say the least. Some might say perverted. Its exact nature could be summed up in a single word – vampirism.

The review: I had wanted to read Doctors Wear Scarlet for some time and, back in 2009/10, it was thanks to the blog Mondo Vampire that I at last got around to reading it when I was offered a guest blogger opportunity. Unfortunately Mondo Vampire is no more and so I have republished the review here. When it comes to the actual book, mine is a second hand copy and proved to be the most bizarrely decrepit and brittle book I have come across arrived – but it is not the actual physical book but the words contained therein that are ultimately important.

The words, in this case, carried a good reputation but had led to the rather poor film Blood Suckers. Despite actually following the plot of the book fairly accurately the book succeeded where the film spectacularly failed and that boiled down to one thing – characterisation.

The book gives a back story to Richard Fountain, the subject of our story, which fills almost half the volume. Such attention to detail might be frowned on by today’s publishers but, given that the explanation for the vampirism is (sort of) psychological, it is rather important in this.

I say that the vampirism is psychological because Raven actually makes a good job of giving half hints that the superstitions that this cult – for it is seen as part cult, which initiates into its ranks, and part infection – might actually be supernatural in basis. I’ll explain.

When we, eventually, get our lore we are treated to the traditional side of vampirism and the superstitions that surround it (though I must point out that Raven was erroneous in some of his traditions, which were more cinematic/fiction based). We are then treated to a psycho-sexual explanation and a level of sadistic and masochistic interplay is blamed. Yet we are aware that there is some degree of hypnosis involved – this is explained as those who are chosen for initiation have such abilities inherently, but such ability would also seem to be a rare and supernatural power. Also we get omens offered through dreams and by the king of the Gods; again this would seem to be perversely superstitious and unnervingly supernatural.

I felt that Raven was aware, as an author, that he was deliberately obfuscating the explanation and, despite offering a rational explanation for vampirism and setting his book deep in the heart of English learning, all those who are possibly infected and subsequently die are staked through the heart before being buried… suggesting that man cannot escape the supernatural no matter how rational he believes he has become.

There is a lovely passage that I wish to share, describing a vampiric attack; “…her mouth was still caught in the hideous grin which she had worn as she struck her face a her victim; and spread over her cheeks and lips, dribbling from the bared white teeth, was the blood, wet and shining red…”

This brings us neatly to the prose. Raven’s writing is strong but I was thrown off stride as I read it. Firstly, the characters, whilst well developed, annoyed me in their arrogance. These are the sort of over stuffed academics and public school chaps who once (and still) controlled England – a group of over-inflated traditionalists, overbearing with their arrogance… but any issue within that should be my own problem and not the book’s.

However one passage struck me as very odd was a misogynistic passage that described a secretary. “…in any case diversion was now provided by a young slattern, who brought in a tray with three cups of coffee on it and some damp biscuits.

“‘Made out of some vile essence,’ said Holmstrom. ‘Get out this second, you frightful slut.’

“Whining something about no need to be personal and coffee essence saving trouble, the depressed daughter of humanity slopped through the door.”

This single passage made me sit up and wonder about the whole of the book. Raven wrote a book of vampirism as a form of sexual sadism and one wonders whether he looked inwards or looked, in disgust, out towards the halls of academia. For it struck me that we only really meet two women in the book in any (light) detail. There is Penelope, supposedly the fiancé of Fountain but actually a tool of manipulation for her father (who is controlling of Fountain and his life), not really liked but (barely) tolerated by the narrator; she is a cipher for her father’s machinations and little more. Then there is Chrisesis – drawn as a vamp, a devil, a sadist and Fountain’s corruptor. We get a disparaging comment towards the end regarding women being allowed to observe college feasts and the unwarranted attack on a woman quoted above.

With generosity I chose to believe that Raven was commenting on the cloistered world he set his book in, rather than celebrating it. Perhaps the book was just a product of its age.

Never the less, it is an interesting view of vampirism and, draws rounded if disagreeable (male) characters. My own critique and discomfort aside (and no one said that a book had to be comfortable to be essential or well written), I’ll say this is an important book within the vampire cannon, 7 out of 10.

Originally published on Mondo Vampire

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