The Malta Independent 26 June 2022, Sunday

Marie Benoit's Diary: A thrilling exhibition of the uncanny, weird and disquieting...

Marie Benoît Tuesday, 26 November 2019, 11:34 Last update: about 4 years ago

The Storm Petrel Foundation goes on quietly working hard "to periodically host extraordinary and unique private collections so that the general public may enjoy what would otherwise remain unseen." This, in fact, is one of the main goals of The Storm Petrel Foundation which was set up in 2014 with the aim of hosting art, literature and popular culture.

A traditional Maltese townhouse was acquired in Attard and extensive restoration works were carried out to create a state-of-the-art repository that offers a permanent home to collections that are entrusted to it by way of donation.  A catalogue of the collections is available online and new accessions are added on a regular basis.  The premises now boast eight beautiful exhibition rooms spread over two floors, including a multi-media room, and an idyllic and tranquil garden.

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The Foundation opened its doors to the public in March 2017 and has since organised three major exhibitions, namely Vanities : Collecting Oscar Wilde that featured the world class collection of Oscar Wilde memorabilia owned by Mr Francis Spiteri Paris, and The Other Side : Horror, Gothic and Science Fiction, featuring items from the collections of the co-curators Prof. Saviour Catania, Dr Fabrizio Foni and Mr Ray Vassallo as well as the collector Mr Carmel Bonnici. This exhibition was divided into two parts, with part 1 running for 9 months and part 2 launched in July 2019 and running until 15th December 2019.

As I walked from one room to the next, at the Foundation's premises,  I could not help but admire those who had set up the Foundation and are running it and the collectors and curators who so assiduously and with love I for their subject, provided us with such a unique exhibition.

I have to say that I am no admirer of Horror, Gothic or Science Fiction either in book form or in film. I avoid them like a plate of ross fil-forn spilt in the middle of Republic street.

Horror fiction has terrified and captivated readers and film enthusiasts since its beginnings in the late 19th century. The horror genre has grown to encompass books television, and film in the modern age and is one of the most popular genres in each of those mediums.

So here I was in the world of Frankenstein and Count Dracula, The Fall of the House of Usher and Murders of the Rue Morgue.

My brush with Edgar Allan Poe in my young days was enough to put me off this genre.

I remember one evening, in my early 20s I chose an Edgar Allan Poe book, Fall of the House of Usher, from my father's collection. With five boisterous children at home it was never easy to find a quiet place to read and I often took refuge in the bathroom, locking myself in. Everyone was out that evening. Bliss.  So I lay on my bed and started reading until I heard a strange and unusual noise. Probably the furniture was 'resting' but I did not know it then. I ran down the stairs two at a time and sat on the doorstep until my parents returned home.

Poe is easily one of the most noteworthy horror writers. He stands out among other writers on this list because it is not a monster that creates the tension and terror in his novels, but rather the darkness and madness that lies within the human spirit.

I eventually finished the book reading only in the daytime and when family was around. How can I forget the macabre story of Fall of the House of Usher in which Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline who is buried alive while in a trance, arises and carries her brother to death? The house they lived in splits and sinks.

I regularly remind my family to make certain I am not buried alive. What a terrifying thought.

It must be said that Poe's life was not particularly jolly. He became an orphan in early childhood and although he enjoyed fame and was much admired by among others Baudelaire, who translated most of his works, he struggled with alcohol addiction and nervous instability and his end was characteristically tragic. Yet his posthumous reputation and influence have been great. I wonder if his life's journey had anything to do with the sad turn of his life. Surely Freud would have a contribution to make here.

Mary Woolstonecraft who is very much present in the exhibition, was married to Percy Bysshe Shelley and she too had a sad life , which perhaps contributed to her famous Frankenstein book.

Her mother died a few days after her birth and only one of the children she conceived with Shelley survived. Her diary entry for 6 March 1815 was as follows: "Found my baby dead. A miserable day. In the evening read Fall of the Jesuits." And again days later on 13 March: "Stay at home and think of my little dead baby. This is foolish, I suppose , yet whenever I am left alone to  my own thoughts, and do not read to divert them, they always come to the same point - that I was a mother, and am so no longer."

Again on 19th March: "Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived. Awake and find no baby. I think about the little thing all day. Not in good spirits."

And after the early death of Shelley in 1822, on 18 June 1824 she wrote: "May I die young.!"

She was in the habit of staying up all night telling ghost stories with her husband Percy BS and Lord Byron.

After she died the ashes of Shelley's heart were found in her copy of his Adonais, an elegy on the death of Keats.

Mary was merely eighteen when she wrote Frankenstein which was inspired by a dream (as was Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan.

Again maybe the horrors of her life were translated into her horror masterpiece  Frankenstein,  the first edition of which was published anonymously.  Dr Freud please?

There's plenty of Frankenstein material in the exhibition which we are not likely to see again for a long time.

As I looked around this truly fabulous collection of film posters of all sizes, books, magazines, press books, comics, graphic novels as well as original artwork, on display for the first time, I was again impressed by the work of such gifted artists.

The Trustees of the Storm Petrel Foundation are Ms Bernie Mizzi, Prof. Saviour Catania, Prof. Gloria Lauri-Lucente and Prof. Ivan Callus. Ms Romaine Petrococchino is the archivist and assistant administrator.
As she was guiding a group of us though the collection and I remarked on the attention to detail and that even the tags were written in Gothic script, I asked her for a personal comment on the exhibition, since she has been intimately associated with it. She told me: "Guests are always very pleasantly surprised when they enter the premises and amazed at the wonderful and unique exhibits on display. Each guided tour is an experience in itself and the curators are always at hand to give explanations and share personal anecdotes... there is always something new to hear and learn. It is so gratifying that these persons are willing to share both their collections and their time with the public and guests who visit the exhibitions. The Foundation is very proud to have created a space where these unseen treasures see the light of day and are made available for a brief period of time to an appreciative audience."

This is certainly one exhibition which should not be missed. It closes on 15 December. The Foundation organises public viewings on a weekly basis and details are posted on the Foundation's Facebook and Instagram pages.  Special events commissioned by private entities and companies for their staff or guests are also held. Visit the Foundation's website(https://www.stormpetrelfoundation.org/) for access to the online catalogue and Facebook page.  For further details contact [email protected].

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