Friday, August 30, 2013

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

3rd reading; first read in the '60s.

I'm willing to bet that almost everyone who attended high school from the mid '50s on has read Shirley Jackson's 1949 short story "The Lottery." I know it was in my high school literature textbook, and it was still in the textbooks when I first taught in the '60s and when I returned to teaching in the '90s. I'll also be willing to bet that most who read it then can still remember it now, when much else has been forgotten.

This 1962 novel builds that same kind of tension and sense of dread, as the reader gradually realizes that something very bad is going to happen. This is a novel to be read twice: once to experience the impact and once to observe how skillfully Jackson introduces bits and pieces that hint that something very dark is going on which is outside the scope of the everyday experience of most people.

For example, here is the amazing first paragraph, which slyly and indirectly tells us so much:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

Right away we know that the narrator must be what we might call "a little off." She is eighteen, yet sounds like a much younger person, although she is obviously not mentally challenged, knowing as she does both historical and scientific facts. She would consider it "luck" to be born a werewolf and twice mentions death. The most chilling phrase is "...I have had to be content with what I had." Instantly, we wonder, "So what does she have that would be just a step down from being a werewolf?"

As the plot develops, we gradually learn of the lives and history of the two sisters. They are isolated in their old mansion, with only Mary Katherine leaving to shop in the village twice a week. Soon we learn that Constance, the older one, who has been tried and acquited for the murder by arsenic poisoning of her mother, father, aunt, and brother, never leaves the grounds of the house. Their life of routine and restraint is guarded by Mary Katherine with little acts of sympathetic magic, such as nailing talismans to trees.

Then enters Cousin Charles, a formerly estranged kinsman, who Mary Katherine fears will upset everything. Events unforeseen yet seemingly inevitable upset the delicate balance of rationality that Constance has worked to maintain.

This is sometimes classified as a Gothic horror novel, but if so it is psychological horror, rather than horror of the supernatural. Mary Katherine's ritualistic magic has little to do with the developing action, except in her own mind. I am reminded so much of the Hitchcock movie Psycho, which had been released a few years earlier. There, too, tension was gradually built by subtle hints that the affable motel owner was not quite as harmless as he would seem.

Something I missed the first couple of times I read this novel: Constance, the rational sister, is perhaps not so normal as she would first appear to be.

I highly recommend this short novel, as well as Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

4th reading, I think; first read in the late '50s

I never thought of this 1851 novel as a Gothic romance before I began researching and reading in that genre, but it certainly has many of the stock elements: a many-roomed, crumbling old house; a family curse; seemingly supernatural events. But it is so much more than that. Hawthorne wrote in the Preface that a writer of a romance should not "swerve aside from the truth of the human heart," but "...may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows...." He also reveals that his novel has a moral purpose: "...the truth, namely, that the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones...."

Thus, Hawthorne has written a tale wherein the characters do reveal recognizable human reactions and mostly behave in realistic ways, with an atmospherical background which is, indeed, Gothic, with supernatural events which may be explainable, but then maybe not. His moral question still continues to be a point of interest today. Are we doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers? Do some inherit the tendency to evil? Is it nature or nurture which determines our character? Or a combination of both?

The story begins with the history of the Pyncheon family in pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts, when the avaricious Colonel Pyncheon serves as a judge in witchcraft trials and condemns Matthew Maule as a witch, thereby gaining access to Maule's land, which he has long coveted. As he is hanged, Maule pronounces a curse upon his judge: "God will give him blood to drink." After possessing the land and building on it a house with seven gables, Colonel Pyncheon is found dead, his front covered in the blood which has poured from his mouth.

The plot then moves forward 200 years, to a time when only a few Pyncheons remain. Living in the house with seven gables is the old maid Hepzibah, who soon welcomes her brother Clifford, who has been imprisoned for years for supposedly murdering a kinsman, and her young niece Phoebe, who brings a ray of light into the gloomy old house. Living in a secluded wing of the house as a boarder is a young man who takes a decided interest in the family, especially in Phoebe. The only other family member living in the town is Judge Pyncheon, who in appearance and actions seems almost a reincarnation of the Colonel Pyncheon who founded the family and received the curse. He is blamed by Hepzibah for framing her brother Clifford for murder in order to gain the Pyncheon money and land.

The action proceeds logically and inevitably toward an impressively dramatic and satisfying conclusion.

To my mind, one of the highlights of the novel is the picture of the character Hepzibah. She is portrayed as behaving and feeling entirely as one would expect of a lonely old woman at the time, in the situation. She seems to me to be Hawthorne's most fully realized character. I felt so sorry for her.

Hawthorne will be tedious for readers who are accustomed only to fast-moving and action-packed narratives. His action is dramatic, but it is not quick and does not move from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. He obviously loves words, and readers who share that attribute will appreciate his mastery.

This is my favorite Hawthorne novel. Even though I taught the more well-known novel The Scarlet Letter many times, I find this one to be more satisfying. Perhaps that's because I really want to believe that those who do evil will be punished in the end, and not just in the afterlife.

P.S. This is one of the best books ever if you will read it slowly, re-read parts if you don't understand them the first time, and really think about it afterwards.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

She by H. Rider Haggard

3rd or 4th reading; first read in the early '70s. I'm on a gothic novel kick right now, but I've run out of new books, so I'm re-reading from what I have on hand.

She has long been one of my escape reads. It has Gothic elements (journeys through dark catacombs and caves, supernatural and fantastic happenings, a dark family heritage). It has adventure story elements (a shipwreck with near drowning, a trek through uncharted Africa, fights to the death with natives). It has the lost-world scenario (an ancient civilization with long forgotten secrets). Plus it has a tragic romance of love lost and found and lost again, and one of the most fascinating female characters in literature. It's one of those books that can suck you in so that while you are reading it, you believe it's true. What's not to like?

This is the story of how an ugly bachelor professor, nick-named The Baboon, and his handsome golden-haired foster son, nick-named The Lion, journey to Africa to investigate a family history which has been handed down since the time of the Pharaohs. There they find She Who Must Be Obeyed, She for short, a surpassingly beautiful white woman who rules a kingdom of savage cannibalistic natives. She claims to know the secret of life almost-eternal, having lived for over 2,000 years waiting for the reincarnation of her lost love, whom she killed in a fit of jealousy. And she believes he has returned, in the person of The Lion.

You may ask, "Who could possibly believe all this?" If you have the sort of mind that can believe in the existence of Middle Earth and hobbits, in a desert planet called Dune with giant sandworms, in a lost land in the mountains of Tibet called Shangri-La, then you will believe in She Who Must Be Obeyed.

H. Rider Haggard was one of the most popular novelists of his day, and She, written in 1887, was his most popular novel. It is one of the best selling novels of all time, and yet few people read it today. I can't imagine why not.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker

Reading this novel by Bram Stoker made me very sad, not because of the contents of the plot but because the talent which produced Dracula in 1897 had so tragically and obviously diminished by 1911, when this novel was published. Stoker had suffered the first of the several strokes that led to his death in 1912, so the wonder is perhaps that he was able to write a novel at all. It's unfortunate that his inadequacies were exposed so publicly.

While Dracula certainly had its faults, the cumulative effect was to make the unbelievable believable. The plotting was tight and logical within its created framework; the method of exposition (letters and diaries from different characters) was effective; the tone of horror and increasing danger built to a satisfactory climax.

In contrast, The Lair of the White Worm reads like the script for a B-grade horror movie, one so bad that it becomes funny in a perverse way. It suffers from all the faults usually present in such movies: lack of focus, with too many different perils; inexplicably stupid actions by the "good guys," which constantly place them in danger; plot holes so enormous that the story hardly makes sense; a general lack of discretion and restraint.

The plot concerns Lady Arabella, a seductive woman always dressed in tight-fitting white clothing who has a hole in her ancient house in which apparently lives a large white serpent. Could they be one and the same? Also, a nearby wealthy landowner has powers of mesmerism, and engages in staring bouts with two of his neighboring young ladies, eventually ending when he stares one of the girls to death. He also constantly flies a huge kite shaped like a hawk which scares away all the birds in the neighborhood and has a supernatural effect on the neighbors. Also, the wealthy landowner has a frightening and hideously ugly servant brought from Africa who is a practitioner of voodoo. Although the servant's actions are very threatening toward the young lady heroines in the early parts of the book, he is removed about halfway when he is dragged into the hole by Lady Arabella, when he mortally offends her by a romantic (sexual) proposition. See what I mean by lack of focus.

A discussion of the inexplicable actions of the characters and the holes in the plot could take many pages. Just take my word for it.

As far as lack of discretion, Stoker openly displays an unbelievable amount of racial bigotry in his depiction of the African servant. As an example, here is a quote: "If you have the slightest fault to find with that infernal negro, shoot him at sight. A swelled-head negro, with a bee in his bonnet, is one of the worst difficulties in the world to deal with. So better make a clean job of it, and wipe him out at once....the law doesn't concern itself with dead negroes. A few more or less do not matter. To my mind it's rather a relief." Not only the quoted character but also the omniscient narrator displays this attitude, never failing to attach derogatory descriptions and comments whenever the servant is mentioned.

Stoker also fails to employ restraint in his Freudian subtext--he might as well have written in all caps: I FIND THE SEXUAL ASPECTS OF THE FEMALE TO BE REPULSIVE, SMELLY, VILE, AND GROTESQUELY BLOODY. His description of Lady Arabella's "hole" is so over-the-top suggestive as to become one of the funny bits.

Another funny bit: the manly young hero comments, "I never thought this fighting an antediluvian monster would be such a complicated job."

I would not recommend this book to anyone. And that's sad.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Vathek by William Beckford

This short novel, first published in 1786, is often mentioned in the list of prominent early Gothic offerings, but it is Gothic with a twist, owing more to the influence of The Arabian Nights than to The Castle of Otranto, which is considered the first Gothic novel. The setting is the opulent East, rather than a crumbling English castle, and the villain is a powerful Caliph who seeks ultimate knowledge and power. He is spurred on by his ruthlessly wicked mother as he travels to meet Eblis, the Islamic equivalent of Satan, to trade his soul for promised rewards.

Along the way, the reader is treated to accounts of numerous supernatural occurrences (the Caliph can kill with just a hard stare from his black eyes, for example) and even more accounts of atrocities committed to gain favor with Eblis (pushing 50 young children off a cliff, for example). The Caliph is distracted from his quest when he becomes enamored with a seductive young lady, but his mother tracks him down and pushes him into completing his journey.

But as we all know, pacts with the Devil never turn out well for mortals, and so it is with the Caliph.

Surprisingly enough, the novel is entertaining, although the plot consists just of one fantastical and bizarre incident after another, without any of the suspense or character development normally considered necessary for a good novel. The tone, which is slyly humorous and ironic, rescues the book from the boredom brought on by a mere catalog of incidents. My favorite part is when dwarves are pinched to death.

Even more of interest and wonder is the biography of the writer, as given in the introduction (augmented by my internet research). William Beckford was the richest man in England at the time, and built Fonthill Abbey, a huge Gothic cathedral-like castle with the highest tower in England, which housed his huge collection of art and other esoteric treasures and included a retinue of lavishly attired foreign servants, including a dwarf who opened the door. His sexual behavior was so reprehensible to society that he was forced from time to time to leave his home for the Continent to escape scandal and possible prosecution. He was widely supposed by neighbors to hold orgies with unspeakable acts in his isolated castle. More than one research source indicates that this novel was considered to be semi-autobiographical, particularly in reference to the mother of the Caliph and Beckford's real mother!

I would not recommend this novel to anyone not interested in Gothic literature and tracing its history.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis

O My, Yes! This is the real deal--early Gothic horror which actually inspires thrills and chills. Horace Walpole originated the genre with his unbelievable and awkwardly written The Castle of Otranto (1764), and Ann Radcliffe continued it with her widely-popular romantic and feminine-targeted adventures with after-explained seemingly supernatural events, including her most famous novel, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Then, only a couple of years later (1796), comes Matthew Lewis, who at 19-years-old writes such an impassioned and believable novel with authentic horrors that it can compare favorably with anything written in the genre today.

The Monk is a story of three parts. We have the love story of Antonia and Lorenzo, the love story of Agnes and Raymond, and the story of the fall from grace and morality of the monk Ambrosio. The three strands interweave and become one as the plot progresses, ending in a highly dramatic and unexpected fashion. I, for one, was left with my mouth agape in amazement and admiration for the talent of the author.

Not that the novel is without its discernible faults: the early exposition is awkwardly handled, and the two romances which form a part of the story are formulaic, for the most part. But when it comes to telling the story of Ambrosio the monk, Lewis bypasses all expectations. The horrors accompanying Ambrosio's fall are not adapted to the supposed sensibilities of a feminine or genteel readership, but are rendered in graphically described and chilling detail. Lewis displays a great deal of psychological insight in his portrayal of the monk, at the beginning a man seemingly without sin, but who is in reality filled to the brim with self satisfaction and overweening pride in his reputation and holiness. His submissions to temptation and descent into immorality proceed logically and are entirely believable. The supernatural elements are so vividly described that a reader has no problem in suspending disbelief.

I can well imagine the excitement this novel aroused when it was published. It was a best-seller, and probably was hidden behind other books in the libraries of many well-bred young ladies. It is sensational, subversive, sexy, and scary. Its writing is over-the-top, but always riveting.

I close with a description of Lucifer from the closing pages of the book:

"His blasted limbs still bore marks of the Almighty's thunder. A swarthy darkness spread itself over his gigantic form; his hands and feet were armed with long talons. Fury glared in his eyes, which might have struck the bravest heart with terror. Over his huge shoulders waved two enormous sable wings; and his hair was supplied by living snakes, which twined themselves round his brows with frightful hissings."

O My, Yes!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

O, to return to those gentle days of yesteryear when young women of education and good circumstance had nothing better to do than sketch and take nature walks and write melancholy poetry. And when they craved excitement, they could turn to this romantic gothic novel by Ann Radcliffe, with its young heroine who bravely faces one danger after another and experiences many seemingly-supernatural visitations, in between her sketching and walking and poetry writing, only fainting every 20 pages or so.

Radcliffe's novels were tremendously popular in the late 1700s, so much so that Jane Austin even satirized a typical Radcliffe reader in her novel Northanger Abbey. I can only conclude that the young female novel readers of that time were so bored that they were willing to slog through pages and pages of tedium to experience a few chills and thrills.

Out of the 670 pages of this novel's very small print, we have perhaps 250 pages of actual story. So what about the rest? Here's an approximate rundown:
*300 pages of nature descriptions of various landscapes in France and Italy. As it turns out, only good and honorable people appreciate nature; people of doubtful honor or breeding don't properly appreciate it, and really dishonorable people don't even notice it or actually dislike it.
*50 pages of melancholy poetry composed by the heroine in response to nature and events.
*10 pages of repetitions of the word "melancholy." No kidding. Almost every page has at least one "melancholy," and many pages feature it twice.
*30 pages of accounts of fainting episodes. All manner of happenings can bring on insensibility, not just frightening events.
*30 pages of accounts of people dying and the heroine's response to the deaths.

However, in those 250 pages of story, Radcliffe does provide an interesting plot line, suspense, and several cliffhangers. In the most interesting section of the book her heroine is imprisoned in the crumbling Castle of Udolpho, where she faces a suitably heartless villain and his band of banditto, some of whom would like to ravish her! It is there, also, that she sees something supremely frightful beneath a black veil! The description of the sight and its explanation is withheld until the last pages of the book.

My conclusion is that Ann Radcliffe was the Stephenie Meyer of her time, with a huge readership for a mediocre talent. Just as the Twilight series has spawned a myriad of imitators, so did Radcliffe's fake supernatural. All Radcliffe's creepy events are explained rationally, and as for Meyer, it turns out that vampires are really pretty sexy guys.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

I have long known about this book, because it is often mentioned as the first Gothic novel. Published in 1764, the story inspired many a writer of the time, and its influence extends even up to today. (Or so I have read!) I like Gothic novels, so I finally decided to read the Founding Father.

Indeed, here we find many of the stock elements of the genre: an ancient, many-roomed castle with secret passages and subterranean vaults, mysterious and ghostly happenings, long-buried secrets, hidden identities, a curse on a family, fair and virtuous damsels in distress, a dastardly and vile villain with evil designs, and a manly and brave young hero.

Yes, the elements are all here, but the result for this modern reader is not what Walpole intended, nor indeed what was evidently experienced by readers of the time. Instead of finding the book to be creepy or scarey or suspenseful, I found it to be quite funny, almost as if it were a spoof of the Gothic. I concede that one must give Walpole credit for coming up with a new scenario and a fresh combining of realism and fantastical romanticism, but I don't believe he was a very good writer.

The story begins on the wedding day of the fair Isabella to the sickly Conrad, son of Manfred, Prince of Oranto. Before the ceremony can begin, (get ready for this!) a giant (we're talking really, really big) helmet falls out of the sky and crushes the proposed groom. This happens on page 2, and it was impossible for me to take the book seriously from then on.

As it turns out, Manfred himself has designs on the fair Isabella, and she has to flee through underground passages to escape his unnatural desires. A myriad of new characters and new manifestations of the supernatural occur before all ends well (kind of).

I would recommend this novel purely on its academic interest as the progenitor of a genre, but for thrills and chills and even for immersion in a story, it fails abysmally.

Texas Vendetta by Elmer Kelton

Although I am not generally a fan of Western novels, I enjoy reading an Elmer Kelton Western from time to time because they are well done and I can trust that they are historically accurate. This one is part of his Texas Rangers series, and features young Ranger Andy Pickard, who had been raised by the Comanche as a captive. The events occur following the Civil War and Reconstruction period, when the Rangers became involved in law enforcement rather than in fighting Indians.

Pickard and an ill-tempered fellow Ranger are called upon to deliver a prisoner to the sheriff of a neighboring country, where the man is wanted for the murder of one of his neighbors. As it turns out, the killing was done as part of a blood feud, and Pickard lands right in the middle between the family of the dead man and the family of the accused murderer.

In Kelton's Old West, very little is all white or all black. Sometimes the lines between right and wrong and lawful and unlawful are very blurred. Sometimes good people do bad things and sometimes bad people are not as bad as they might seem. In other words, Kelton's novels are like real life. And that's one thing that sets him apart from many others who write in this genre.

Kelton is also adept at providing excitement and suspense, and his dialogue is flawless. Even though I am not a historian, I have been informed by those who are that his depictions of early Texas are always accurate and based on actual research.

The Western Writers of America honored Kelton as the Greatest Western Writer of All Time. Texas lost a treasure when he died in 2009 at the age of 83. Enough said....