Joanne Harris is perhaps better known for her novel, CHOCOLAT, than for this title, which is her debut. As explained in her author's note to THE EVIL SEED, it was largely due to pressure from her fans which saw to the book being reissued. Her brief discussion of the book is in itself quite interesting - to hear what an established author thinks about their first attempt at literature is nearly always to be fascinating, and this is no exception. With huge honesty, Harris herself acknowledges that the book was never a masterpiece as she had not found her own voice. But what it does do is suggest at the kind of writer she would later turn into.
THE EVIL SEED is a gothic novel about vampires, although this phrase is never used within the story itself. Alice, a young woman living in Cambridge, is devastated to discover that a man she once loved has now found someone else he loves. Alice cannot stand his new girlfriend, Ginny, but for the sake of Joe, she tries to make friends with her. But as she gets to know more and more about Ginny, Alice dislikes her even more as she seems to lie to Joe about everything.
Alice then discovers an old journal, written by a man called Daniel Holmes just after the Second World War. As she reads Daniel's journal, which describes how he and his friend Robert fell under the spell of a beautiful young woman called Rosemary, Alice fears that the past has resurfaced.
That is the basic plot. The story is told by alternating chapters going from the past to the present. The fact that this was a debut novel does show. Parts of the story are not really thought out very well, while other parts are dramatically over-written. As Harris explains at the beginning, the plot was an ambitious one - while it certainly offers some originality to the whole mythology of the vampire, it was perhaps too big for a beginning novelist.
Although this book is not a masterpiece, what it does offer the reader is a chance to see how an author began her career and then went on to develop afterwards. And it does give some hints at just how good she was to become.
on 11 April 2000
At several points, early on in 'Evil Seed', it seems as though Harris has written a typical 'student' novel, which does make your heart shrink with horror. Alice has a telephone conversation with her ex-boyfriend, Joe, which goes on for far too long, sinking into banality, the very thing that we seek to avoid when reading Joanne Harris. There is another instance in which The Stranglers' 'Strange Little Girl' is quoted. This may be snobbishness on my part, but I feel the song is too familiar to be mentioned at such length (although it's entirely right that Alice should mutter this song when she's hurrying after Rafe and Java at night). Of all Harris' characters, I regard Alice and Joe to be the weakest (although Joe does resonate powerfully later on). The balance of the narrators in 'Evil Seed' seems to be strangely awry. Because Alice's story was not narrated in the first person, like Daniel Holmes', she seemed more distant. Okay, so Daniel was writing in his diary, but since Alice is meant to be our contemporary, then she should be closer to us. In 'Blackberry Wine', Harris created a brilliant third person narrator in Jay, whilst 'Chocolat' and 'Sleep, Pale Sister' had excellent first person accounts. This is the only Joanne Harris novel where I feel that I could cut away at the entrails, whilst leaving the guts of the book intact, and it's probably no coincidence that this is her first novel.
I've said that Joe does become more powerful as a character later on, and I must once again note that there is always a certain amount of realism in Harris' magical fictions. It's true that I have encountered a couple of real women like Rosemary, and one of them was indeed a fellow student at Cambridge. I've seen Joe and Ginny's relationship played out in front of me before. She the weak fragile creature with seemingly endless powers of manipulation, he the protective man, reduced to quivering, nervous exhaustion: adolescent affairs driven into hormonal overdrive. It takes a brave author to tackle such themes. There is some perception that Joanne Harris is a feminist writer, perhaps driven by the image of the strong women in 'Sleep, Pale Sister' and 'Chocolat'. But this is to ignore the fact that she writes so well from the viewpoint of men. The depiction of Daniel Holmes' desires in this novel is startling. For a feminist writer, I feel, it would be too easy to see Rosemary/Ginny as victim. However, it is here that Harris' strong desire to tell a gripping story outpaces such blinkered dogma, and indeed, Daniel Holmes dismisses such beliefs when talking with his psychiatrist.
Joanne Harris has expressed some concern with the cover of this edition of 'Evil Seed' in the past, her fear being that the contents of the novel may be too strong for the hearts of the more mature readers commonly attracted by such twee artwork. To be fair to the artist, the cover is quite faithful to a passage in the book, it's just that the style is wrong: more Alice Farrell's 'Red Rose Romance' work, more 'Flower Fairy' than the darkness of the Pre-Raphaelites. Indeed, it seems as though the marketeers from Severn House have not fully read 'Evil Seed'. Yes, it is a Romantic novel - but it's Gothic Romance, not Mills and Boon! It is a work of tragedy, in which people die messily. This reverence of the Pre-Raphaelites is where Joanne Harris' fingerprints most show (she even seems to have named 'Inspector Turner' after Ruskin's nemesis). But after having read Harris' 'Sleep, Pale Sister', it seems, for a moment, that the Pre-Raphaelites are just tacked on here. (Perhaps there was a more concrete bridge between these two novels at one time?) However, if you do research into the paintings that Harris refers to in the text, such as Rossetti's 'The Blessed Damozel', then you come across the rather interesting history of Rossetti's model and wife, Elizabeth Siddal. She, like Elaine in Harris' novel, started out as a milliner. You've also got to admire Harris' use of Pre-Raphaelite parlance, since Elaine is quite accurately recruited as a model by an artist who refers to her as a 'stunner'. This is where Joanne Harris is so stimulating, why she is one of the most exciting writers around, because there is always so much texture to her work, layer after layer of rich detail.
The reason why Joanne Harris is concerned for the hearts of her older readers is because it soon becomes clear that 'Evil Seed' is a vampire novel. I've no doubt that fans of Buffy will devour this novel whole, but I do have concerns about inevitable comparisons with Anne Rice's work. Like 'Interview with a Vampire', 'Evil Seed' does contain an infant vamp. However, 'Interview with a Vampire' failed to move me and did not meet my expectations, and Harris creates a very different kind of bloodsucker. Joanne Harris has chosen her location wisely here in many ways. Since Cambridge is a university town, it is absolutely the right place for her shadowy monsters to remain hidden in plain view, since there are always new faces each year. However, there is nothing that reassures me more concerning the keenness of Harris' vision, than her description of the homeless. Certainly, the only thing that depressed and shocked me in early 90s Cambridge was the number of people living on the streets. Concentrated in the town centre, they seemed to outnumber those living in London. 'Evil Seed' is also Harris' most carnivalesque work. I don't think it's the blood and guts which frightens you, it's just that the prose makes your heart beat with so much adrenaline, so much pace, that your senses are liable to be heightened, to the extent that you will become very fearsome of the night...
on 19 August 2012
I found this book interesting more because it is Joanne Harris's début novel rather than for the book itself. The writing is quite poor compared to her later books and I found that she did not develop the characters as well as she usually does. However there are plenty of parts where you can see her normal writing style starting to develop.
I found the story line itself to be quite good. It twists and turns a lot in the same way that is usual for her, although there was a part which I had expected to be explained and wasn't (I wont give anything away), which felt more like an inconsistency than something deliberate.
The story is dark, in the same was that sleep pale sister is, and although it is a romantic novel of sorts, there is nothing of the beautifully romantic magic of some of her other books such as Chocolat or Blackberry Wine.
If you are a Joanne Harris fan then I think it is well worth a read. If this is the first Joanne Harris book you have read then please do not base your opinion of her on this one, it is very different from most of her other works.
All on the menu for our lunch party to chat about this early work by Joanne Harris. The idea of the meal being somehow related to the book worked better with previous choices; The Secret Life of Bees - peaches and honey, The Elegance of The Hedgehog - macaroons and the naughtily named `nun's farts". Mistakenly thinking hurray here's one of her's that we haven't read, our book club happily chose it.
However not all first pressings are excellent and The Evil Seed was passed over for a reason - it's a mess. By the end the story was all over the place, even having been tidied up a little for this printing by the author. Try as I did, I couldn't keep up.
There are some well-written bits about Cambridge and some scarey parts when people certainly aren't what they seem. I haven't read any of the teenage books for which this might be a forerunner but I would categorise this as a young adult book - horror section. So if that's your bag, get stuck in.
Messy, gory and unbelievable (thankfully) this book has been around for two decades. The author's notes are fascinating, explaining that she wrote it when she was twenty three; a trainee teacher `a few years out of Cambridge.' I really enjoyed that thirteen-page section. It showed how an author develops and for that reason I am glad that I have read this, if for no other.