City of Dreadful Night

Rating: 
4
City of Dreadful Night
Review by McClelland, submitted on 28-Nov-1995

City of Dreadful Night
By Lee Siegel
University of Chicago Press
264 pages, $15.95

Lee Siegel has written a wonderful and highly original novel in his City of Dreadful Night. Part tour de force, part adventure and horror story, and part treatise on horror, the macabre, and the act of fictionalizing, the novel is masterful in its design and execution. Its fictionmaking seems to begin with its jacket copy, which claims Siegel went to India to research a book on Sanskrit horror literature and then, on the recommendation of a friend, traveled to Varanasi, City of Dreadful N ight, in search of an itinerant teller of ghost and vampire tales, Brahm Kathuwala. There's really no reason to doubt this, except that by the end of the novel Siegel has never found Brahm, which is a very sly piece of work because Siegel conjures him for us on page twenty-three, and . . . But as Brahm might say: "That's enough of the story for now. There's still a lot to tell. But not now." The beginning is spectacular enough. Naked, Chitralekha stands in front of her mirror ardently dressing for a meeting with a lover, whom she has only known from afar. Tonight, she will take his breath away. She will give herself to him. She will make him hers. She goes to meet him, looks into his eyes, and bows to touch his feet. One can't say more here without ruining things for the reader, but suffice it to say that the consummation of her love plunges India into chaos. With this single stroke, Siegel takes us captive and sounds his major themes.

Six hours later, Siegel arrives in India to start his research. He is told by his host about a fantastic old storyteller who wears a battered English top hat covered with peacock feathers, amulets, and a silver crucifix, and who claims that the English s tory of Dracula was a true story, and that Dracula, the Vetala Maharaja, after he was slain in Britain, was reincarnated in India. Siegel, of course, is skeptical, but goes in search of Brahm Kathuwala in Varanasi, where, because of riots and curfew, he a nd his wife are unable to leave their hotel. A figure moves through the shadows. Siegel strains to hear him. Brahm Kathuwala starts to narrate. And what a story Brahm--and Siegel--tells. It is the terrible tale of a boy who became possessed; perhaps nothing incarnates that boy's fate more than the man's name, Brahm, for Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, and Kathuwala, literally, "ghost one," o r "ghost teller." Moving back and forth through time--two days before Siegel's arrival, back to 1919, again to the present, back to August of 1947 (the slaughter of Partition), into the present and forward, Brahm, installed beneath a pipal tree in a rural Bihari village, starts his tale of horror of the Brahmin Govindaswami and his two sons. As he narrates, he meditates on the art of storytelling, language, the amulets he will sell, and the villagers before him. Brahm also keeps peering fearfully into the shadows, sensing the presence of him, Betul Rajo, the Vetala Raja, the Vampire King. As long as he can keep telling his story, Kathuwala can keep Him at bay.

This is the central, driving metaphor for the book, and it succeeds wonderfully, synthesizing and reinventing everything on the Indian landscape. As Brahm narrates his tale, his story merges with the sound of the videowala's loudspeakers as he begins to show an Indian horror film and winds its way back to the present chaos in India, the modern stalking of the beast which lives in the human race. The strands of Siegel's narrative converge and then move forward to the purifying and releasing fires of the c remation grounds of Varanasi, the City of Dreadful Night.

Kathuwala is equal parts alter ego, invention, and muse of Siegel. Through him and through his namesake, Siegel knows just when to step back and incorporate his Western skepticism, or Brahm's, so that his story stays on the cutting edge of credibility. S iegel's thesis is that horror fiction, be it an oral variation on the Ramayana, or Dracula, is both a metaphor for and exorcism of the devouring emotions of desire, lust, fanaticism, and fear of the abyss. Unfaced and unarticulated, these emotions create monsters and monstrous acts--riots, the Walpurgisnacht of Partition, Stoker's invention of Dracula feeding on blood. Stories tame the beast, allow the listener to thrill to the dark emotions, and survive. Siegel has reincarnated this in Brahm Kathuwala. What a pleasure it is to be held captive by his joyful and original creation.

Fanged Films

From the Library

As the 20th century evolved, rational man turned to science to explain mythology that had pervaded for thousands of years. How could a man be mistaken for a vampire? How could someone appear to have been the victim of a vampire attack? Science, in time, came back with answers that may surprise you.Anemia
A million fancies strike you when you hear the name: Nosferatu!N O S F E R A T Udoes not die!What do you expect of the first showing of this great work?Aren't you afraid? - Men must die. But legend has it that a vampire, Nosferatu, 'der Untote' (the Undead), lives on men's blood! You want to see a symphony of horror? You may expect more. Be careful. Nosferatu is not just fun, not something to be taken lightly. Once more: beware.- Publicity for Nosferatu in the German magazine Buhne und Film, 1922  

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