All the years I’ve been coming to EIBF, I’ve never attended the opening or closing event. This year I’ll be at both as they’re both 21st century gothic events, modern day recreations of either Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde or Goethe’s Faust.
Richard T Kelly and Kevin MacNeil have both reinterpreted Stevenson’s classic. Why is it so enduring, they were asked. Despite its minor plotholes, it is a work of genius, said MacNeil. It’s an archetypal story said Kelly. The desire for life beyond our expiry date simply will not go away.
We are in the Spiegeltent. A place of lights and mirrors and reflected images that prompts McNeil to read from the camera obscura section of his novel. He also reads the section about the main character’s love/hate relationship with Edinburgh. No city is without its duality, he said. We have seen London’s Jekyll become London’s Hyde earlier this week. He describes his novel as a 21st century response to Stevenson’s premise, reset in Edinburgh. In his mind (and mine) the novel should have been set there in the first place. And while the structure is similar, the professions of the characters have been changed and it’s a female perspective that recasts the events of the first section. Most definitely an updating of Stevenson. Full review here.
Kelly describes writing The Possessions of Dr Forrest as a gesture of love to the gothic novel and to Stevenson in particular. Thus his novel preserves many of the characteristics of the original: the London setting, the structure and narrative style. He uses diaries and letters though not email. I’m a traditionalist, he said, in the sense that I still punctuate my text messages! His narrators are mostly male. 1 detective, 3 doctors (allbeit with different specialisms). In keeping with the intensification of 21st-century angst, all 3 doctors are in crisis. Professional respectability and success is no guarantor of personal happiness. Ironically it is the psychiatrist Dr Hartford who is suffering the most.
My profession long ago dispensed with Satan, of course, but initially advanced no further than to the notion that madness thrived in the sufferer’s blood, and could be drawn out by a sensible application of leeches. What are the fruits of wisdom that centuries of enquiry now bestow upon me? “Get some drugs into this man! Dampen down those symptoms!”
Psychiatry may have dispensed with the devil but this novel isn’t so adamant. Torment comes in many forms and most of it – in the pre-confessional sections of the novel certainly – emanates from females. The balance is redressed – somewhat- by the male-induced problems of Eloise – Dr Hartford’s patient and the sole female narrator. The greatest destruction, however, is the crazed ambition of Dr Forrest.
His disappearance right at the very beginning of the novel starts a downward spiral that eventually sucks in everyone. We can see this happening, even if the characters can’t but it’s not until Dr Forrest’s confessions that we understand the absolute diabolical nature of his actions. Never likeable, even when viewed through the sympathetic eyes of his friends in prior sections, he transforms through his own words into the most loathsome and contemptible creature I’ve ever read. Just how low can you go? Think about it and I’ll wager Forrest goes lower. Jekyll and Hyde? Jekyll and Hyder, more like.
I’m happy to report that I saw no Dr Forrest in the author (at least not at the festival). And I don’t believe that it was a mask. Kelly is such a genial character. Happy to chat on twitter (@RichTKelly) I love his dry, sardonic wit. On surgeons: The sense of their own prowess is so high, they are happy to have observers see the genius in their own hands. At the signing I had to ask how writing this darker than dark novel affected his head. Well, he said, my wife was very glad when I was finished. She wanted it out of the house!
You have been warned.