Last night I attended my first meeting of The Gothic Club, a group of horror fans who meet periodically to talk about horror books and films. (I won't tell you where we met, or who the other members are, in order to protect the anonymity of this most exclusive and exalted of Clubs.)
The story we had to discuss this week was an enigmatic tale called The Cicerones, by the English author Robert Aickman. As the story is set in a cathedral, and involves religious imagery and concepts, I found it of especial interest. In my remarks, I mentioned that I am "very much a Roman Catholic". I felt it was relevant. The story involves a tourist in a Belgian cathedral confronted by several strange and unearthly characters. Everyone else thought they were demons, while I felt more inclined to view them as angels offering grace to an imperilled soul.
I am very happy to become a member of a book club. I am always grouching about the modern world, but one very welcome development (in my opinion) is the recent proliferation of book clubs. I can hardly think of a better way people can spend their leisure time. What I like especially about the book club phenomenon is that it so democratic. All sorts of people (or so it appears to me) attend book clubs, and not just culture vultures.
The older I get, and the further I move from my school-days, the more fondly I remember English class. Attentively analysing a poem or a story of a passage of prose is, I think, a very civilized activity. I like the idea of writing being taken seriously in that way. (Of course, writing can be taken too seriously. The Joyce industry and the Yeats industry and the Dickens industry, and all the other literary-critical industries, seem hellbent on squeezing all the playfulness, spontaneity and joy out of the study of their chosen authors, and making a pseudo-science out of a liberal art. I am reminded of what Oscar Wilde said about Henry James: "He writes fiction as if it were a painful duty". Too many academics-- not all of them, of course-- seem to study fiction and poetry and drama as if it were a painful duty-- and it certainly becomes a painful duty for their readers and students.)
I also like book clubs because they are a counterweight to the depersonalizing currents in our society. Mobile phones, computers, television, call centres, internet shopping....more and more our interactions are with voices coming out of a piece of plastic or a name on a glowing screen, with people who might be on the other side of the world. The people we do encounter face-to-face tend to fall into two categories; work acquaintances, and family and friends. Work is purposeful and structured, while private life is the opposite (very often chaotically the opposite!). But I think something in us cries out for some form of human contact that combines the best of both realms; that has some purpose and procedure and format, but that is also voluntary and done for its own sake (unlike work).
My desire to belong to a book club was fed by seeing The Jane Austen Book Club last year, which I enjoyed more than I expected to. I'm afraid I've never been a fan of Miss Austen's works (my loss, I know), but I loved that the film took them so seriously. Of course I expected that the members of the club would have romances and dramas of their own, which would mirror the stories they were reading. But what surprised my was that the books themselves, and the act and joy of reading itself, was so prominent a theme. The book club was not simply a plot device. The only other film I've seen that takes reading so seriously is Shadowlands, the C.S. Lewis biopic.
So I thank God for the rise of the book club phenomenon, and for leading me to the Gothic Club, and I hope both continue for a long time!