Sixteen cathedrals to see before you die

There can be no clearer illustration of the central role that great cathedrals continue to play in a nation’s life than the outpouring of grief that greeted the catastrophic blaze in Notre-Dame in 2019. President Macron described the building as ‘our history, our literature, our imagination, the place where we experienced all our greatest moments’. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive of any major European city without a cathedral at its heart. Emma J. Wells has written an accessible, authoritative and lavishly illustrated account of the building of 16 of ‘the world’s greatest cathedrals’. Her subjectivity is evident in that only seven feature among Simon Jenkins’s top 25 in his

How the quarrelsome ‘Jena set’ paved the way for Hitler

Today, the German city of Jena, 150 miles south-west of Berlin, is the world centre of the optical and precision industry; but in the 1790s it spawned an even more marketable commodity. It was then a small medieval town on the banks of the river Saale with crumbling walls, 800 half-timbered houses, a market square and an unruly university. Here, in the philosophy department, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a young professor inspired by Immanuel Kant and the French Revolution, proclaimed from the pulpit his theory of the ‘Ich’. ‘A person,’ he roared, ‘should be self-determined.’ In an age of absolute power and the divine right of kings, the idea of free

Haunted by a black cat: Earwig, by Brian Catling, reviewed

Genuinely surrealist novels are as rare as hen’s teeth. They are a different form from the magic realist, the absurdist, the wacky, the mimsical and the nastily satirical. But Brian Catling is a genuine surrealist novelist, and it no doubt helps that his artwork is surreal (he is professor of fine art at Ruskin College, Oxford: how Ruskin would have loathed him). He has previously written a trilogy of novels, The Vorrh, which has been among my highlights of the past few years. This is a more slender book, but it is slender like a stiletto. If there is one defining feature of truly surreal literature, it is that it

High priestess of horror

A film critic friend, astonished that I had never heard of Shirley Jackson, told me to go and read her immediately. That was ten years ago and she has since become one of a handful of talismanic writers I reach for when craving literary succour. An undisputed master of the gothic and the uncanny— We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Hangsaman are both masterclasses in the unearthly and the opaque — she plumbs domestic and familial horror in a way which manages to be both universal and chillingly particular. She is also, in Britain anyway, still ridiculously underrated, even unknown. This new biography by the New Yorker critic


Nowadays a vampire is usually a Transylvanian in need of an orthodontist. But, as Nick Rennison demonstrates in this entertaining anthology, it was not always so. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was simply one of a crowd when it was published in 1897. Nor was the novel particularly successful at the time. It was only in the 20th century that Count Dracula became the world’s vampire of choice, and that was due to Hollywood rather than Stoker. Dracula’s contemporary colleagues are ripe, as it were, for exhumation. Vampires, particularly in their late Victorian and Edwardian prime, formed a staple of Gothic horror and assumed a variety of guises, some more subtle than

Talk of the devil | 24 September 2015

For years, Ian Fleming was famously self-deprecating about the James Bond books. (‘I have a rule of not looking back,’ he once said. ‘Otherwise I’d wonder, “How could I write such piffle?”’) Towards the end of his life, though, he finally produced an essay in their defence — proudly pointing out, among other things, that however fantastical the plots may become, they’re always carefully rooted in a world recognisable as our own. Of course, this is not something that can necessarily be said of all the Bond films — but it certainly applies to ITV’s new three-part thriller Midwinter of the Spirit (Wednesday), based on the novel by Phil Rickman.

Gothic mysteries

This is a muddle of novel (originally published last year by Tartarus Press in a limited edition), though there are plenty of indications that the author will go on to do great things. I doubt if he had quite decided what he was writing — a Stephen King horror story, a book about the loss of intense Catholic faith, a serious novel about families, a Gothic mystery.… It has elements of all these, but has not settled down to be any. It is written as though at a distance from the characters, by someone observing them, perhaps ironically, perhaps fondly, never closely. Only the narrator, and his younger brother, Andrew

Imagine Eastenders directed by David Lynch

Ghostly doings are afoot in Edwardian London. Choking fog rolls over the treacle- black Thames. Braziers cast eerie shadows in grimy alleyways. Two sinister doctors hunch beside a dying fire in the appropriately-named Printer’s Devil Court, ‘a dark house, with steep, narrow stairs’. Having supped on a hearty repast of lamb stew and treacle pudding, the ‘shadowy’ Dr Walter reveals his dastardly scheme. ‘We are proposing… to bring the dead back to life.’ Our hero young Dr Meredith is appalled. This is diabolical! Derivative of Frankenstein! Not quite. The experiment results in a phantom rather than a monster. No gothic element is spared in this tale. The author has surpassed