7.23.2013

Review: Macbeth


‘Let it come down.’

Macbeth is a remarkably saturnine, poisonous play: a thread of muddy doom is woven through the fabric of its plot, and any hint of redemption obscured by dark, threatening clouds. That its skeleton is constructed with certain stock materials—vaulting ambition punished, the insidious and cruel female, the equivocal and often deleterious nature of prophecy—is curious given its transcendence of the maudlin trappings of most of these sorts of tragedies: Macbeth takes place, after all, on a somewhat epic-scale; unlike similar fictions, however, it doesn’t squeeze in its more human elements as mere padding between its battle scenes: the play is its human elements. Despite the conspicuous spilling of blood and the sometimes convoluted machinations of its political contexts, Macbeth is truly a tragedy of the soul.

Relationships are strained here; and that of Lady Macbeth and her husband is, obviously, the most interesting and complex Shakespeare is offering: the veil between sanity and madness is delicate in a play where guilt is consistently put further on the backburner as the atrocities pile up. Lady Macbeth, seemingly a seething black hole of corruption and evil, provides us with an interesting contrast to the slow devolution of her husband: her own guilt manifests behind the curtain of consciousness, only reaching its climax offstage, where her (implied) suicide—and its motivation—remains somewhat mysterious and open to interpretation. Macbeth, on the other hand, remains unrepentant to the last, and we are treated to his gruesome undoing in exacting detail. Shakespeare has loaded the duality that exists in both of these characters with a great deal of psychological weight: the tension that boils between them is more complex than murderer and accessory (and we can pick who fits which title). Lady Macbeth’s convictions exist undeterred until she is confronted with their ramifications after-the-fact; Macbeth’s own convictions waver in the face of forethought, but once the transaction has been purchased with blood, he stands behind them, unwavering, to his very death. A haunted couple, they have become archetypes in our literature.

Macbeth’s relationship with Banquo is less baroque. Banquo provides a foil of reason to Macbeth’s decline: Banquo represents the innocent who stands on the just side of fate, while Macbeth rises heavenwards, like Icarus, chasing destiny with dire results. This begs a question, however: how much of what takes place in Macbeth is solely the work of destiny? Certainly one can say that the prophecies regarding both Banquo and Macbeth coming to their fruition is confirmation of the play’s propensity towards the supernatural, but of Macbeth’s pursuit of fate…this is more curious: after all, why plot to kill Duncan and make yourself king if the cards have already been laid out towards this end? Or are Macbeth’s crimes exactly what the prophecy infers? This question could be argued in circles, certainly, because it exists beyond the constraints of the play. Macbeth’s vision is very dark, however, and I would lean towards the latter conclusion: predestination requires a fated evil as much as a fated good, and we do not always find ourselves in the position to choose. This is one of the more troubling truths examined in Macbeth.

Macbeth is obsessed with the supernatural: with fate, with visions, with incantation, with prophecy. It is entirely natural, then, that its characters should be shrouded in the gloom of uncertainty: each of these people is swallowed up by the fog that surrounds them, whether for eventual good or ill. None of them leave this play without experiencing shattering transformation, both internal and external. But the play goes beyond average considerations in pursuit of more metaphysical themes: it suffocates us with its horrors and leaves us disconcerted by their import—chews at our hopes as much as at our fears. It implies, without beating us over the head, that perhaps free will is a more complicated privilege than we’d care to admit: that perhaps even that most elemental of freedoms is subject, somehow, to the caprices of fate.

6.07.2013

Review: Tales of Mystery and Imagination


(Via 'A Portrait in Flesh')

Edgar Allan Poe is the savior of Gothic literature: not only is he largely responsible for salvaging the Gothic imagination from a deeply stagnant mire of clichéd melodrama, over-rehearsed motifs, and unreservedly bad writing, he is also the father of two genres that, in essence, did not exist before he put pen to paper: the detective story (chiefly) and what we refer to today as the ‘psychological’ horror story. His use of Gothic devices, though, ensured that the mode did not entirely disassemble: rather, it took on new shapes and meanings—new colors: without Poe, there would be no Bierce and no Lovecraft, no Turn of the Screw or Picture of Dorian Gray; it can even be argued that, without Poe, there would be no Melville or Conrad—no Heart of Darkness, no Moby-Dick. Our literary debt to this single, sui generis figure is so significant that, a century and a half after his death, he remains one of the most widely-read and influential of all American authors, both here and abroad—particularly in France, where he was the immediate muse of Baudelaire, and, by extension, the Decadent movement. This is no small feat for a man whose common leitmotifs include premature burial, decomposition, disassociation, anomie, mourning, insanity, and a general repudiation of the more common Romantic applications of allegory and moral. Much of his reputation in his own day relied as much upon his poetry, numerous satires, humor pieces, and scathing critical reviews as upon his ‘tales of the grotesque and arabesque,’ but I will limit this review to the latter.

Among the varied output of of a highly variable man,'The Masque of the Red Death' makes an especially compelling case for a unique philosophy in art. A formative influence upon the Symbolist movement, the familiar comeuppance of ‘happy and dauntless and sagacious’ Prince Prospero at the hands of a ghastly plague he has sought to avoid through reclusion can be viewed as a sort of Á Rebours in miniature. Those seeking an allegory or final moral in this profoundly symbolic piece will find none: it is a fable, but it owes very little to Aesop. In common with Poe’s other out-right horror-work (‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’ ‘The Black Cat,’ ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ and the remarkably gruesome ‘Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’), ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ is more an examination of the limits of the psyche: and these limits, in ‘The Masque of the Red Death,’ are examined, chiefly, through a reader’s inability to refrain from attaching any ultimate ‘meaning’ to the story presented. To this end, Poe demonstrates what is, perhaps, the totality of his vision: that ambiguity itself can become a theme in literature, particularly when this ambiguity mirrors its own content (as in ‘The Assignation,’ ‘Silence,’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ or the mingled horror/humor of ‘King Pest,’ which Poe claims contains an ‘allegory,’ but which, of course, contains none at all). For Poe, symbolism can exist outside of allegory—this was what Baudelaire and the Decadents responded to most intensely: a scent can have a color, a sound a feeling. Poe invented this system of correspondences, even as he distanced himself from the idea of ‘correspondence.’

At the other end of the spectrum, Poe’s detective stories—he deemed them tales of ‘ratiocination’—remain among his most immediately influential: without Poe, as in so many other cases, there would be no Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or Mystery of the Yellow Room. Poe mapped the modes of this method of storytelling through the introduction of his ingenious C. Auguste Dupin, who unravels the mysteries of the widely-read ‘Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ alongside its sequel, ‘The Mystery of Marie Roget,’ and ‘The Purloined Letter.’ Poe tried his hand at similarly ordered tales of mystery unraveled, as in ‘The Gold Bug,’ but it was to be his construction of a central detective character—now a stock type, near-universally possessed of a justified arrogance, clarity of vision, and uncanny fastidiousness—that would have, arguably, the greatest impact of all Poe’s literary inventions.

Poe was famously haunted by recurring themes of grief, beauty, and decay, and his characters, particularly those mourning dead lovers, can often be viewed as surrogates for Poe himself—whether intentional or unintentional—and this idea of self-insertion would be a further influence upon Decadent literature, from Baudelaire to Mallarmé, Wilde, Huysmans and beyond. There is little predictability to this set of motifs, however, as Poe's characters, so often taken to particularly poisoned states of mourning, behave in dramatically different ways: the only dubiously-bereaved narrator of ‘Morella,’ with his near-hatred for the object of his affections, stands in striking contrast to that of ‘Ligeia,’ whose intensely unhinged state (as much a product of opium as of sorrow) is responsible for an ending that can be viewed as either dream or reality, depending upon a reader’s interpretation. In further contrast is the narrator of the horrifying ‘Berenice,’ whose obsession eventually centers upon one, solely physical, feature of his cataleptic lover, with gruesome results. Catalepsy is a recurring motif in Poe’s work, particularly within this variety of story, but premature burial itself was less a particular obsession of Poe’s than a general, widespread paranoia of Victorian audiences as a whole. Poe helped to crystallize the idea, however, and our notion of premature burial is, today, less informed by actual incident than by the trappings of Poe’s fictions: chiefly, this is due to the fevered detail of ‘The Premature Burial,’ but the motif is also present in ‘Berenice,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ and others.

Remarks on Poe’s poetry, essays, and only novel (The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym) will demand further entries in this journal. By way of conclusion, some personal reflection: Edgar Allan Poe was the first author I discovered as a child: a collection titled The Poe Reader was both my first exposure to his work and the first adult book I ever owned, purchased at the tender age of nine. My immediate obsessions centered on ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and his enchanting poem ‘Ulalume,’ leading to further examinations as I grew older, in turn revealing both more famous pieces and some strange odds-and-ends, like his treatise on interior design, ‘The Philosophy of Furniture.’ Further exploration yielded the gorgeous, otherworldly pen-and-ink drawings of Harry Clarke (several of which are scattered throughout this review) and from there the astonishing breadth of Poe's influence on disciplines as diverse as literature, painting, cinema, music, and fashion.

Perhaps more than any other influence, Poe has impacted my thought processes, particular obsessions, and even the direction of my life: for without Poe, it seems, I would not write; his work emphasized that by responding to our visions, as opposed to merely describing them, the products of an artist's toils become more palpable—more real and more affectingly beautiful. And it is through this message that Poe, the perfect alchemist of American letters, remains one of the chief ambassadors of our literature—a poet and storyteller for all times and all places, forever.

5.28.2013

Review: Zofloya; or, The Moor


Zofloya; or, The Moor is as much the product of one woman’s palsied, eccentric neurosis as it is the chief example of Matthew Lewis’ influence on the Female Gothic. Charlotte Dacre, firmly setting aside the pastoral ‘terrors’ of Ann Radcliffe, establishes in her most widely-read novel conventions of female sadism that were, for their time, near-revolutionary. That they were not picked up by other authors until considerably later in the 19th Century is intriguing. Still more intriguing is that Zofloya; or, The Moor is, despite its almost shocking cruelty, a novel concerned to its very last lines with the supremacy of proper, uncorrupted morality.

But how is one to demonstrate the virtue of morality without first detailing, for several hundred pages, the absolute depths of corruption and depravity? This is no Torture Garden, certainly, but, for its day, the concerns of Zofloya; or, The Moor were certainly controversial: shameless adultery, scandalous violence, the suggestion of miscegenation, Satanism, liberated sexuality. And where else would a proper British novelist set these scenes of Gothic excess than in recondite, libertine Venice?

Zofloya uses its ‘ultimate morality’ as a scapegoat: Dacre’s attention is near-entirely devoted to the painted perversity of her subjects. Her own life is a testament to the enduring mystery of ‘created’ identity, subject, and morality; that there is a war, though, taking place among the pretty ruins of her muse is quite obvious: her most interesting creation, Victoria, is at turns a prototype of the justified feminist and, conversely, the villain of what descends quite neatly into one of the precursors of the ‘Slasher’ film. But the incongruity of Dacre’s irreconcilable compulsions is even more evident in the construction of her mysterious, titular ‘Moor,’ Zofloya, who only appears a little over halfway into the book: vacillating between extremes of physical beauty and physical repugnance, charm and repulsion, vile sorcerer and loyal protector—it is as though Dacre had painted the picture of her fantasies of miscegenation and diabolism, and then, fearing the effect her own proclivities might have on both her work and her reputation, quickly sought to repudiate them within the space of a few paragraphs. The curious thing is that she hasn’t removed the more obviously erotic paeans to the Moor at all: apparently repudiation is enough to clear her of any ‘immoral’ indulgence in her construction of a ‘moral’ fable. To a modern audience, though, more comprehensively skeptical of the cancers of racism, these passages of disavowal will seem almost absurdly irrelevant, and, often, highly confusing; but thus is the nature of Dacre’s neurosis, and this contrast in perspectives was not entirely lost on contemporary critics.

It is, perhaps, surprising that Zofloya; or, The Moor had a profound influence on the young Percy Shelley, one of the more graceful poets in our language; but Dacre’s prose is remarkably economical for its time, and there is actually great beauty to be found here. That it is also the product of a mind that lived as Gothic a life as the characters she created, however, is immediately apparent, and this novel appeals as much to general curiosity as it does to the search for an entertaining narrative or academic analysis.

5.14.2013

Review: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner


‘I closed my lids, and kept them close,
And the balls like pulses beat;
For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky
Lay dead like a load on my weary eye,
And the dead were at my feet.’


The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is, inarguably, one of the five or six most important poems ever recorded in the English language. And while Samuel Coleridge may have abhorred the Gothic excesses nourished to increasingly baroque heights during the years he was busy writing literary criticism, a younger Coleridge—perhaps, even, a more naïve and spiritually-aware Coleridge—managed to pen the only one of those five or six paramount poems to feature the supernatural as more than a passing reference: and certainly the only one to regard it with the mingled aura of terror, awe, and beauty that we have come to define as ‘Sublime.’ With this, Coleridge gave birth to Romantic literature (particularly the Romantic as we define it today: the Romantic as it breathes in the works of James Hogg, Mary Shelley, and—later—Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville).

The poem is so familiar, that I will avoid summarizing it in detail: suffice it to say that the story of the Ancient Mariner, who kills the albatross and is cursed to suffer at the hands of a Nature that is at turns mournful, spiteful, and furious, is one of the more archetypal scenarios in Romantic literature (and perhaps English literature, and popular culture, as a whole: the tale of the man who underestimates the forces that protect the natural world, and their contingent retribution, has been retold through lenses as diverse as comedy, horror, high fantasy, pulp adventure, and children’s television). Any underestimation of its impact, similar to Shakespeare, can be dispelled with examples of its gifts to popular culture and the popular lexicon: the notion of an ‘albatross hanging about one’s neck’ is a common enough allusion that it borders, nearly, on the cliché; meanwhile, lines like ‘Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink’ have become references so pervasive that many who have never even read the poem are aware of them. This parallels, say, the aggressive influence of a novel like Frankenstein on the popular imagination; unlike that novel, though, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has not entered the zeitgeist through the vehicle of cinematic adaptation or references in a body of literature that bears little relation to it (although, coincidentally, Frankenstein makes numerous references to Coleridge’s poem, and is one of the earlier works of literature to truly embody the full scope of its impact—aside from operating as an extrapolation upon its central, supremely Romantic theme).

I have neatly avoided the relationship of Coleridge to Wordsworth, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s inclusion in Lyrical Ballads: these details bear little relation to the concerns of this journal. I will, however, dwell for a moment on the initial details of the poem’s publication: as most are aware, the poem was originally presented without a gloss and utilizing the most arcane variety of spelling; this was corrected in a later publication (which has since become standard) largely because the format was not in keeping with Romantic ideals. That said, though, this return to an earlier, more esoteric device and the mysteries suggested by avoiding comment or explanation, are very much in keeping with the ethos of the Gothic, both as an extension of the Romantic imagination and a separate set of motifs. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’s early concern with itself as a text, by utilizing a unique (and antique) format is both indebted to the early Gothic of Radcliffe, Beckford, and Walpole, and influential on the later Gothicism of the Shelleys, Maturin, and Poe. Reorganized, with gloss and modern spelling, the poem takes on a new, more obvious, concern with itself as a text, which in its own right has become influential on the ‘epic’ poetry of later authors.

Interspersed throughout this review are several of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: but this is only the tip of the iceberg: the weight of allusion to Coleridge’s masterpiece over the past two centuries has been so incredible that to list even a dozen of them here would take more space than is permissible; needless to say, the breadth of this fascination with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is not relegated merely to fine art and literature: again and again, up to and including the present day, the poem resurfaces in allusions and analysis both obscure and immediate in forums as diverse as popular music, animated television, and even video games. Still, it must be said, the most impactful and haunting of these references and homages to Coleridge’s famous poetic conceit rest in those that have taken illustration as the nature of their devotions: Dore’s images, while possessing a value to art uniquely their own (and, in many ways, remaining the standard illustrations to Coleridge’s opus), are, as I said, merely the tip of the iceberg. And this, in my eyes, remains the measuring stick by which we judge the canonicity of a given work of literature: not merely how often it is read—nor by whom—nor the nature of its subject matter, nor its ability to stand as a document of its time and circumstances, but by the degree to which it propels Art, and hence Imagination, as a whole, towards higher and higher atmospheres: both by stimulating the creative faculties of other artists and by drawing forth these faculties in the minds of those who have not yet developed them.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is, indeed, one of the great works of English poetry; but it is also one of the great works of world literature in its entirety, standing confidently among works as diverse as The Arabian Nights, Hamlet, and the Bible as a major influence on the art of those who have yet to even experience it first-hand. And for this, Coleridge was a prophet—and a guide.

5.09.2013

Review: 'T'ain't the Meat...It's the Humanity!' and Other Stories


Greetings, ‘boils and ghouls.’

It seems curious that the resurrection of this blog should fall at the hands of material that, at first blush, seems entirely beyond its scope. I say ‘at first blush,’ because one peek into the linchpin of E.C. Comics’ horror-stable, Tales From the Crypt, reveals the Gothic imagination laid bare of most of its affectations and placed, after a twenty-year stint in cinema, back on the printed page. And yet, the images made archetype in films like The Wolf-Man, Doctor X, or The Mummy have come along with it, in a fusion that (at the time) was entirely original. Alas, it was not to last for long—but the story of the horror-comics’ demise at the hands of the censors has been told many times by writers far better acquainted with the details than I, and I will leave further observations to them.

Tales From the Crypt is what happens when the most basic conventions of the Gothic—terror, horror, and revulsion; self-parody; and irony—converge with settings, situations, and characters that are often entirely modern (though there is more than a fair helping of Transylvanian castles, withered old crones, and dark-and-stormy-nights to be found within these pages). Alongside The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear, Tales From the Crypt established a special kind of twist-ending yarn and introduced the notion of the pun-loving, quippy horror host that was to become so pervasive in television and film (HBO’s Tales From the Crypt, of course, chief among these derivations). Fantagraphics Books has revisited these ‘putrid pages of pallid purulence’ by presenting ‘T’ain’t the Meat…It’s the Humanity!’ and Other Stories, a single-artist retrospective highlighting the remarkable artwork of Jack Davis, a legendary figure in the history of comic art. As this review is more concerned with the literary aspects of this work, I will limit my comments on Davis’ art to this: it is both subtle and coarse, campy and unrelentingly gruesome—meaning, then, that it is as much the father of the Tales From the Crypt brand as the stories themselves (whose authorship, it should be mentioned, is never entirely clear; it seems that most credit is to be split between publisher William Gaines and editor Al Feldstein, who provide concept and script, respectively).

'T’ain’t the Meat…It’s the Humanity!' and Other Stories contains twenty-four classic ‘dismal dramas,’ each taken exclusively from the pages of Tales From the Crypt. ‘Drawn and Quartered’ owes much to The Picture of Dorian Gray (Gaines was a fan of using classic literature as ‘springboards’ for his own scenarios), but is a great deal more grotesque—and, arguably, uses the device of the ‘picture’ to a fuller effect. ‘Well-Cooked Hams’ is an old-fashioned Grand Guignol tale that takes as its subject (of all things) the Grand Guignol; it is charmingly lurid. ‘Forever Ambergris’ showcases Tales From the Crypt’s unique ability to take its most basic formula (Man A murders Man B; Man A gets comeuppance through otherworldly involvement of Man B) and reinterpret it through remarkably diverse mechanics: here involving everything from bubonic plague to whale vomit. ‘Telescope’ and ‘Tight Grip’ are both grisly shockers that rely on one final, startlingly original image to make their impact. ‘Dead Right’ takes irony to a new level in a tale so bizarre that to summarize it would rob it. ‘Concerto for Violin and Werewolf’ revisits classic Gothic motifs and settings, with a downbeat ending unusual for a title that, while always delightfully macabre, generally presents what can easily be deemed morality tales. Other standouts include the ingenious and surreal ‘Four-Way Split,’ the deliciously grim ‘Grounds…for Horror,’ and a classic gross-out appropriately titled ‘Gas-tly Prospects.’

Much of the modern Gothic owes a great debt to the ‘fetid fables’ presented in Tales From the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, et al. In much the same way as the Victorian Gothic thrived in the pages of the penny-dreadfuls, the Gothicism of the mid-20th Century thrived in the pages of E.C. Comics; in the wake of the Weird Tale and Universal Horror, a hybrid developed that has never been entirely discarded—not merely as a template for future artists, but as a cultural touchstone that lives on in remarkably disparate work: much like the material that presaged (if you will) Tales From the Crypt itself: Lovecraft, Dracula, Poe, and Bierce. The immediate influence of Tales From the Crypt can be seen in the fiction of such modern giants as Clive Barker and the unavoidable Stephen King, the films of George Romero and Tobe Hooper (amongst many, many others), and the popular television series that shares its name. Impossible to reduce to the confines of genre-literature or pulp trash, Tales From the Crypt remains one of the most striking and accessible of all the works that bridge the gap between Gothic literature and actual Horror fiction. A fascinating and thoroughly effervescent meeting of the highbrow and the lowbrow, the intellectual and the repulsive, the humorous and the haunting, Tales From the Crypt (and the publisher that gave birth to it) is as relevant a title today as it was sixty ‘fears’ ago.

'T’ain’t the Meat…It’s the Humanity!' and Other Stories comes very highly recommended.

4.04.2012

Review: The Golem


Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem has, in a very literal sense, rewritten who I am as a person. The labyrinthine philosophy and mystical power of this novel have shaped me as if I were clay: as if I were, in past life, a Golem—but, upon finishing Meyrink’s masterpiece, a tangible soul: no longer a thing of clay: awake, now, while before I was a sleeper, dreaming the dreams of previous symbols and identities—but now The Hanged Man, seeing the miracle of the mystery of Death: the great Death that brings the great Transformation, which is reflected, finally, in the mystery of Resurrection: in the cosmic alchemy—but this alchemy played out, now, on the human stage: within my own flesh. Meyrink’s work has—more than anything else I have ever encountered—impacted me to a degree that is at times almost uncanny: when I read The Golem, you see, there are times where I feel as if I were reading the work of my own pen: dreamy visions and meditations written in the foggy presence of my God and spelled out in hieroglyphs of fire.

As a story, The Golem is familiar: it utilizes the archetypal Gothic conflict of Jekyll and Hyde and, to a degree, the influence of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. These tropes, though, are redistilled through the lens of Jewish myth and modern urban horror to weave a twilight-colored narrative that startles and disturbs more than it terrifies or appals. The Golem’s terror is a terror of the soul—Meyrink’s bottomless mysticism so suffuses the novel with grace, that by book’s end we have found ourselves enchanted by his dark, haunted Prague simply because we have seen the hand of God cross over its baleful sky and lend light (and shadow) to the troubled lives of its curious inhabitants. The Golem’s protagonist, Athanasius Pernath, is the archetypal Hanged Man made flesh; he attains the level of symbol in a reader's mind: he is a parallel to our own fight against the madness of night, and his awakening is a mirror of our own journey to spiritual integration, universality, and alchemy.


It is exceedingly difficult to write about this novel, considering the almost unfathomable depths of its impact upon my own life. I relate to it in the same capacity as I relate to other texts of spiritual significance: the Tao Te Ching, the Qur’an, Ecclesiastes, Job, the Bhagavad Gita. It has so affected the very fabric of my identity and world-view that attempting to deconstruct it would, for me, be an exercise in the most profound of futilities. Consider this, then, less a review and more of a bit of personal show-and-tell: The Golem is a compass by which I can navigate the churning waters of spiritual vanity, to land, at last, upon a shore that is safe and supplied with the provisions of the soul: it is the light that beckons me away from the terror of night and to the rock that is, beyond the fog, the lump of fat my soul has sought so painfully through the tortures of waking life and the formless vapor of hollow ‘epiphany.’

This novel is Truth, and it has given me my freedom: Meyrink tore the shackles from my eyelids—he taught me how to see.

3.29.2012

Review: Dracula


Dracula is the stuff of myth. That this one saturnine, irresistibly purple novel has had such a remarkable impact on the fabric of our literature—and our popular culture—is fascinating when we consider its humble origins as just another piece of sensationalized Gothic melodrama destined to thrill the appetites of a fin de siècle public largely desensitized to the notion of terror fiction. Consider its rival for best-seller status in its time: Richard Marsh’s equally compelling The Beetle. How many of us have encountered, or even heard of, that wonderful novel outside of the cognoscenti of the Gothic movement? And yet Dracula is a novel many of us have never even read, and yet remain entirely familiar with; like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula has become so paramount within our culture’s perception of the ‘Gothic’ that approaching it without any bias, completely objectively, is nearly impossible. And what is there to say about this novel, really, that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? It is, after all, exactly what we’d anticipate it as being: suspenseful, erotic, full of the kind of tenebrous gloom that has, for a long time, remained deeply ingrained in our understanding of what is (and is not) Gothic; it is not a masterpiece, in that it is an exceedingly flawed piece of fiction, but its status as the germ of an entire movement within our literature—the vampire mythos—is impossible to ignore, and given its near-epic trajectory, to call it a failure, despite its many flaws, would be a kind of blasphemy.

Bram Stoker is not a good writer. Dracula, his opus, suffers from a deep decay in its construction that becomes more glaring as the novel reaches its dubious ‘climax’ (which is one of the more anticlimactic finales in all of the genre); Stoker’s other fictions run the gamut from the decent (The Jewel of Seven Stars) to the plodding (his short fiction) to the absolutely dreadful (epitomized by the gruelingly awful Lair of the White Worm). Dracula, on its own merit, is enough to secure him his lasting fame, however—and one has to admire his brazenness: Dracula was, like many of the now ‘classic’ fictions of the fin de siècle, a bit of a scandal from the very beginning. It plays off of the glossy, eroticized fears of a Europe that was beginning to drown in the notions of decadence that, at first charmingly invective and iconoclastic, had become, in no small way, prophetic: the political ramifications of the ‘New Woman,’ the idea of foreign infiltration into a rapidly permuting Britain, the suggestion of sexual liberation—these fears, the skittish neuroses and obsessions of a distending empire, had become more than just speculative notions: they were rapidly developing realities. That Stoker was able to consider them within the context of parable—an industrialized London suddenly haunted by the most ancient terrors of European myth—was no slight stroke of genius; but, the thing is, I simply cannot believe that Stoker intended this. The subtext of Dracula seems to brood largely within the more unconscious layers of Stoker’s narrative: it is an undercurrent, a suggestion, never an outright examination.


There is no need to outline the plot: we are all entirely familiar with it. Most of the more delicious, and deliriously powerful, of Stoker’s images play out towards the beginning (which is, I think, a flaw): the initial imprisonment of Jonathan Harker at Castle Dracula, the captain’s log from the doomed Demeter, the dream-haunted dissolution of Lucy Westenra; this parade of lusty, phantasmagoric scenery is powerfully haunting and sets up what is to become, as I said, a kind of an epic. The epistolary format of Dracula lends the novel, at times, absolutely genius narrative conceit: consider, for example, the wealth of perspectives as our naïve vampire hunters close in on Castle Dracula before the ‘climax.’ If said climax were not a wooden exercise in falling flat on one’s face, the novel could, I believe, be forgiven every other flaw; but unfortunately, the epistolary format also renders some of the more ‘sentimental’ content (the love story, etc.) rather insipid—even, at the worst of times, almost comically maudlin—and this is at odds with much of the novel's general dexterity.

To call Dracula the high-point of literary Gothicism would be taking a great liberty: other texts—Melmoth the Wanderer, The Turn of the Screw, Frankenstein—are better deserving that appellation; it cannot be argued, though, that in the popular imagination Dracula is the beginning and end of the entire movement. Its seminal place in our literature is so inarguable that it remains one of the few ‘horror’ novels universally read in the study of the Anglophonic canon. On a personal note, despite my criticism, I consider myself an avid admirer—even a devotee—of the novel. This, too, is a testament to its power: despite its haphazard construction and wealth of genuinely maddening inconsistencies, at its highest moments Dracula possesses a grace uncommon to such baroque, sensationalistic themes as vampirism, sex, and moral decay; it is only with the publication of Dracula (although one can argue a case for Polidori or Le Fanu) that the notion of ‘glamour’ entered the world of vampirism in our literature, and this is due in no small part to Stoker’s almost uncanny knack for suffusing the repugnant with a more than potent dose of the exotic, mysterious, and darkly beautiful.


Dracula will live on, like the archetype it has constructed, in our popular imagination for a long, long time, though whether it will be rediscovered or simply reappropriated by the generations which follow us is open for debate: its impact, however, is entirely inarguable, and its place in the literature of the fin de siècle is both poignant and fitting, for it is the final breath of a century of madness, poetry, and decay.

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle


I have never been thoroughly enchanted by Shirley Jackson. I find that her writing—while generally taut and suspenseful (and even sometimes profound)—often falls rather flat, which reminds me a bit of writers like Bram Stoker (for whom I share a similar opinion). Now, that may seem like a contradictory sentence (and I suppose it is), so let’s clarify: there is a quality to her prose that is difficult to define—it is immediate, to-the-point; but this immediacy can sometimes border on the brusque side of the equation, lending to her work the curious image of Gothic elegance walking hand-in-hand with the pulps.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a book that I read in two sittings and left with a high opinion of—a five-star opinion, really; but the more I thought about it, the less I loved it: and it seems the same way for everything I read of Ms. Jackson’s, with the (signifigant) exception of her two more famous pieces: 'The Lottery' and The Haunting of Hill House. Aside from those two masterpieces, Jackson’s fiction is just not something I enjoy enough to come back to, though I may find it interesting—even spellbinding!—the first time around.

The novel is well-plotted, but its premise is somewhat sketchy: after their entire family is poisoned (save one uncle), two sisters (one of whom the crime is believed to have been perpetrated by) retreat into utter solitude in their curiously well-kept ancestral home somewhere in rural, any-town USA; their isolation borders on mutual delusion (and eventually descends into just that), leading to a climax that is, unfortunately, so stale it almost reads as satire.

Jackson’s narrative seems quite aware of its unlikelihood, and so it is somewhat jarring to see just how hard the woman will try to create plausibility where it is simply not going to happen. She’d be better off just rolling the dice and leaving us to our own capacity for suspension of disbelief, rather than attempting to mine realism from a character study whose power lies largely in its sense of fantasy. The premise itself is not totally implausible, but Jackson’s littering of tiny digressions becomes tiring and a little—yes, I’m going to say it—stupid. I feel at times, reading Castle, that my intelligence as a reader is being both stimulated and insulted at the same time.

I would suggest this for both hard-core Gothicists and for those who find the genre entirely annoying, which is a good illustration of how polarizing I find it. Jackson fans will appreciate her gracefully laconic prose and her generally pessimistic world-view, but her detractors will find this more than a little wooden. I’d reiterate that I find this one of Jackson’s stronger works (though it's certainly no Haunting of Hill House), and I really did enjoy reading it, but it’s one that’s a hell of a lot better in the thick of the reading than it is upon deeper reflection. So bottom line: I’d recommend it, with some serious reservations. It’s certainly better than most of the ‘suspense’ drek taking up space on your local library’s shelves, but it’s not the goldmine of subtlety and emotion I had been led to believe it was.

Shirley Jackson observes some real truth in her writing: I just wish she was able to communicate it without leaving such a humdrum taste in my mouth. I’d love to hate this novel, but I can’t; I’d love to love this novel, but I can’t: and you’d think that that would be the mark of something really important—really rare—but it’s just…not: this is remarkably pedestrian stuff, and I’m simply left wanting.

1.05.2012

Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau


‘The study of Nature makes a man at last as remorseless as Nature.’

The Island of Dr. Moreau
is a relentlessly disturbing novel—and likely more disturbing to a modern reader (given our dubious ‘progress’ in the fields of genetic modification, cloning, etc.) than to its initial audience of 1896. Like Brave New World, the sheer plausibility of The Island of Dr. Moreau lends the novel a layer of social relevance that is difficult to ignore; for this is much more than run-of-the-mill science fiction or Gothic horror masquerading behind the veneer of quiet plausibility: it is a searing exploration of nothing less than the very essence of what makes a human being a human being, a more somber examination for 21st Century readers (given our general familiarities with authoritarianism, too-flexible ethics, and racial strife) than it was, perhaps, for the thrill-seeking readers of the fin de siècle. H. G. Wells has always been considered something of a visionary, but his politics are often overlooked by readers of The War of the Worlds or The Invisible Man: but not so The Island of Dr. Moreau: from the very beginning, it seems, any serious discussion of this novel has also included an analysis of the theories expounded within, from reproach of a caustic hierarchy of social (especially racial) interactions to a deep questioning of the cold justification of what we might call ‘science for science’s sake.’

The plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau involves a man named Prendick who has, at novel’s start, been shipwrecked. He is taken aboard a passing vessel and eventually finds himself isolated on the private island of a scientist named Moreau who has been experimenting with animals: namely, dissecting the creatures and ‘reassembling’ them, giving them the semblance of men (in both intellect and physical form). His experiments in vivisection, questionable though they are, seem to be a kind of horrific success…until the ‘men’ begin to devolve into their former bestiality. Up until the beginning of what is to become an absolute mess, the Beast Folk (as Moreau has termed them) have retained their ‘humanity’ through a semi-elaborate system of what are half Moreau-imposed and half self-imposed laws: not to eat flesh or blood, not to bend down like an animal to drink, etc. As the delicate veil of humanity commences to rend under the inherent predilections and instincts of the Beast Folk’s natures, however, things begin to spiral out of control. I won’t ruin the conclusion of the novel—for it is a very thoughtful one—but needless to say, nobody emerges from this story quite unscathed (and how could they?).


It is easy to imagine all this talk of sub-humanity and slippery scientific rationalization as a kind of moral parable, and that is because this is precisely what The Island of Dr. Moreau is: as much as examinations of the ethical concerns regarding chemical warfare or nuclear proliferation remain popular within the science fiction of today, The Island of Dr. Moreau was equally prescient regarding the moral dilemmas of its own day. That there are laws in many countries restricting the practice of vivisection and related sciences is due in no small part to the impact of this novel and the credence it lent to common criticisms of what was, and is, a repulsively callous discipline. What we leave The Island of Dr. Moreau with, however, is not solely a definite condemnation of the scientific ego run amok, but also an uneasy correlation between the story of ‘created men’ living under the ironically dehumanizing control of their creator and the status of cross-cultural relations as practiced under the imperialistic system present at the time of Wells’ writing.

The idea of reforming through ‘civilization’ the ‘savage’ lies at the heart of the notion of Empire—from the British Raj to the concept of Manifest Destiny; and it is the timelessness of this social quandary that continues to render The Island of Dr. Moreau one of the more important pieces of science fiction written in the last two centuries. It is to be read and reread, both for entertainment’s sake and more pressing examinations; the novel seems to demand each of the two approaches: the first to lay a foundation for its expositions and the second to nail home several very lucid and unavoidably practical arguments. In my opinion, this is the strongest of Wells’ fictions—engaging and germane, grotesque and nightmarishly thorough in its examination of the darker shades of the human instinct to go ‘where no man has gone before.’

12.23.2011

Review: The Turn of the Screw


The Turn of the Screw is probably the most widely-analyzed piece of literature to come out of the 1890s (and certainly the most widely-analyzed of Victorian-era horror fictions). Its plot concerns nothing spectacularly unique, as far as ghost stories go; and yet this, James’ most consummate novel, is one of the more ingeniously constructed ghost stories in the English language. The Turn of the Screw’s greatest strength lies in its exploration of the complex web of doubts that linger in the back of its central character’s brain, which mirror in many ways the reservations that occur in the mind of a reader of ghost stories. This curious inversion of the relationship between reader and writer sets the stage for a matryoshka doll of a story that falls into itself, layer upon layer, numerous times throughout its scant hundred pages of text.

The Turn of the Screw is almost a condensation of every motif present in the archetypal English ghost story, though its scope is more American in its convolutions. Henry James, who penned several other ghostly tales alongside his more mainstream fiction, succeeds here so supremely because of his near-obsession with the ambiguity of ambiguities. Wilde called it ‘a most wonderful, lurid, poisonous little tale,’ and that is a fitting assessment: The Turn of the Screw envelops us in a fog of doubt and suspicion, placing us in its narrator’s head and forcing us to see mysterious events through her eyes: there is no third-person narration here to challenge our inevitable disbelief; instead we must rely on the facts as presented by a narrator who is, quite possibly, delusional…but then, is she?

The plot concerns the isolation of a governess at a sprawling country estate where she is left in charge of two children who seem to have fallen under the influence of a menace that may or may not be supernatural. As the story evolves, however, we are forced to question how much of what our narrator is telling us is accurate; The Turn of the Screw predates, and yet also exemplifies, the idea of the ‘unreliable narrator’ which was to have such an influence on the Moderns. Its subject matter lends itself, however, to this device and it remains one of the more successful examples of the technique.


The Turn of the Screw is quite possibly the death rattle of literary Gothicism—the final ‘key work’ in a century-long movement—and so it is quite fitting that it so encapsulates the entire tradition of the Gothic. There would be later luminaries— Lovecraft, Blackwood, Du Maurier, and others—as the 20th Century began to find its darker voice, but The Turn of the Screw remains the curtain call of Gothicism proper: it is the beginning of the psychological horror story and the end of the ‘haunted castle,’ ‘perambulating skeleton,’ ‘woman-in-peril’ school. It still fascinates, simply because so much can be read into it. If we grant that its conclusions remain open-ended, we must also grant, however, that a great deal of its import is right there in black-and-white: The Turn of the Screw elucidates as much as it obscures and paves the way for the kind of cerebral terror that would become the hallmark of the next era of literary gloom: the Weird Tale.

Like all fictions that occupy a place of transition, The Turn of the Screw is a very difficult piece to pin down or define, and given its subject matter, this ambiguity seems entirely relevant to any assessment of its impact. James may not be the foremost writer of Victorian-era Gothic, but his opus is without question one of the finest examples of the movement: it is crisper than Stoker and more chilling than Le Fanu or Stevenson, more allied with Poe and hence more American in its focus: James may have been an Anglophile of the strictest sort, but his darkest work, The Turn of the Screw, entirely exemplifies the principles of the American Gothic and remains, with the stories of Poe, the strongest work in its canon.

12.10.2011

Review: The King in Yellow


‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living god.’

The King in Yellow is a book containing ten short stories, four of which are interrelated (and the subject of this review); they are, ‘The Repairer of Reputations,’ ‘The Mask,’ ‘In the Court of the Dragon,’ and ‘The Yellow Sign.’ The remaining five tales range from a set of hallucinatory prose poems ('The Prophet's Paradise') to a predictably supernatural love story ('The Demoiselle d'Ys') to a series of wooden, Francophile romances that have absolutely nothing to do with the first half of the book, save perhaps their loosely thematic consideration of the hazards of knowledge; and while the variable—and often dreadfully stale—latter half of the book contains very little of interest, the four interrelated narratives that comprise its opening half (the King in Yellow cycle, proper) are some of the more astoundingly original pieces of short fiction in all of American literature.

Within this quartet, Robert W. Chambers—a man of remarkable, if briefly employed, vision—sustains a sense of dread only occasionally matched by the great talents he would inspire several decades later. Written in the fin de siècle period and gently touched by the influences of Bierce, Wilde, and Poe, Chambers’ near-revolutionary breed of cosmic terror is so bleak, atmospheric, and saturated with the cloak of doom that to dip into The King in Yellow is almost to taste the madness described therein: for this profound influence on the work of Lovecraft and what would come to be known as Weird Fiction begins with one of the more elemental of Gothic premises: a book that poisons. The King in Yellow, you see, is actually not a collection of stories at all; it is a play within a collection of stories—a play suppressed by governments and denounced entirely by both 'pulpit and press', a play capable of opening the mind to truths of such wicked import that to look upon them once is to look upon the face of madness. This play trickles through the skeleton of each narrative in the King in Yellow cycle: a constant and sweetly sinister miasma that corrupts body, mind, and the very ethers of soul and sanity; and while we are offered occasional glimpses at its pages—a line here or a line there—it is a particularly effective hand that shies away from giving us much more than a taste of what exactly is contained within the cursed pages of The King in Yellow.

The fevered descent that Chambers has titled ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ is the most successful story in the cycle and opens it, establishing its necessary mythology and tone; in many ways it simultaneously foreshadows not only the horror work of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, but also the dystopian nightmares of Orwell and Huxley, which is indicative of a general trend: the vision that reverberates throughout the entire King in Yellow cycle is startlingly prophetic, in both content and style, lending a strange timelessness to its pages that approximates, in its impressions, the same insidious hypnosis the play described therein is reputed to induce. The opening story is a brilliant piece of fiction in and of itself, with subtle hints throughout the tale suggesting its jarring and brutally ambiguous ending early on, but it is the echo of its varied motifs, and the way they interweave with the remainder of the collection, that elevates 'The Repairer of Reputations' to a higher plane of literature than many similar fictions can claim.

The remainder of the cycle picks up where ‘The Repairer of Reputations’ leaves off, examining situations that occasionally make subtle reference to each other without ever explicitly crossing-over: ‘The Mask,’ which is the most accessible of the quartet, echoes Wilde with more insistence; ‘In the Court of the Dragon’ is dream-like and terrifyingly sinister, dealing with mysteries that are perhaps unfathomable; the closing story of the cycle, ‘The Yellow Sign,’ is the most popular with anthologists and was the most influential on later authors; it is the grimmest, most thoroughly desolate piece in the volume.

Chambers’ prolific literary output has largely been forgotten (excepting this, his masterpiece): and perhaps this is rightly so, given most of his work’s insipid, if highly-profitable, triviality. The menace he nourishes to such success in The King in Yellow is entirely absent in his other fictions—including, even, several of the stories that comprise the latter pages of the The King in Yellow itself. But the quartet of stories that outline the mythology of The King in Yellow is enough to ensure Chambers' durability: there are so few works of entirely visionary genius in the canon of spectral literature that to identify truly pioneering work is really quite simple—and Chambers’ genius ranks alongside Walpole, Poe, and Maturin for sheer mettle and originality: despite the stodgy ineffectuality of the second half of the book, ultimately, the King in Yellow cycle itself is intelligent, haunting, and exquisitely unnerving in ways few ‘story cycles’ are able to maintain.

A product of the same decade that spawned Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Salome, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Sorrows of Satan, Torture Garden, Bruges-La-Morte, and À Rebours, The King in Yellow is one of the few works of the 1890s to remain entirely unclassifiable: it is at once decadent and austere, anarchic and conventional, sagacious and utterly indolent: a kind of saturnine mirror of its own content. And it will haunt you, certainly—but that breath of contagion is sweet; the empyrean heights to which it aspires—the heights that Lovecraft would shatter some time later—are as full of humbling gloom as that later luminary’s work, and just as insistent in the totality of their vision. Unlike Lovecraft, however, Chambers’ opus marvels in the sheer ambiguity of cosmic terror, never shedding an appreciable light upon its subjects or delving too deeply into the complexity of mythology that the Lovecraftian throng would explore several decades later. But this is not a weakness—if anything, the curt laconicism of the King in Yellow quartet is an important part of its beauty and overall success: it is the blueprint of an entire movement—a real-life parallel of the terrors posited within its pages.

12.05.2011

Review: The Picture of Dorian Gray


The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the more elegant novels in the Gothic canon; that it is also one of the more sinister is hardly surprising given Oscar Wilde’s curious aptitude for tempering the macabre with the sensuous and the frivolous with the fatalistic.

A considerable scandal upon its publication in the early 1890s, the novel still reads as slightly homoerotic, even if only in the most clandestine and aphotic of ways. Woven through its themes of beauty, decadence, age, and the nature of art is a thread of shimmering doom that becomes more poignant the longer one spends with Dorian Gray and the more one considers its relationship with its author.

It is a peacock’s fan of luminous wit and glimmering color, dripping with venom and smelling of strange perfumes. We are all familiar with the general flavor of things: an innocent and exceptionally beautiful youth has his portrait painted one fateful afternoon; upon viewing the piece, he is paralyzed by the sudden revelation that one day he will be old and hideous while the painting will retain its beauty and life. In a devil’s bargain, he wishes that it would be the other way around. And then, under the influence of a particularly deleterious gentleman, Dorian Gray begins to change: his innocence gives way to corruption and his beauty seems apt to languish under the spell of opium, cruelty, and languor. One day Dorian notices that the painting has begun to transform, while he himself retains all the beauty of an innocent despite the ever-swelling ocean of his sins…


Few works of literature are as effervescent as Dorian Gray and just as few are as utterly pessimistic; that it is capable of fusing remarkably disparate parts into a whole that is absolutely cohesive is a superior example of its author’s gifts. Like Wilde’s Salome, Dorian Gray is as colorful as it is bleak, and even its weaknesses, in context, seem like strengths.

Seldom is an artist’s most famous work also his most erudite and brilliant: this is one of those works. I have approached it perhaps six or seven times in the last five years, and each reading has left me more enraptured than the last—which is high praise for a novel that relies a great deal on suspense and aesthetic splendour. I consider it one of the finest things I have ever read—daring, sultry, venomous, eloquent, and radiant in its own decay.

9.22.2011

Review: Haunted Castles


Ray Russell’s Gothic work is absolutely the finest the latter half of the 20th Century has to offer in that genre: his tales are theatrical and atmospheric—remarkably macabre for all their sophistication, humor, and gloss. ‘Sardonicus,’ his most widely-known, is a grotesque and evocative masterpiece well-deserving its fame; it is featured here with two further novellas and four shorter pieces, ranging from the lurid to the cerebral and beyond.

The stories collected in Haunted Castles are united principally by their stylistic thread and achieve a rare success: they are capable of standing as both cunningly original works in their own right and dramatic, effervescent pastiches of the likes of Poe, Stevenson, or Wilde. They are bizarre at times, often disturbing, but never entirely revolting: they operate within a realm of shadow Le Fanu would recognize, despite their excesses, utilizing the classically-Gothic terror/horror distinction to underline moments of the most cleverly abstracted sort of dread; they are not ‘frightening,’ exactly (and much of the Gothic only seldom is), but they meander through musty corridors of unease with a charming sense of doom hanging about them like shrouds of stale smoke. Lovers of the twist ending are in for a real treat, too: each of these yarns ends with a decided jolt.

‘Sardonicus’ is the jewel in the crown. It is so utterly bizarre, though, that attempting to sketch any details of the plot would only rob it of its peculiar power. It is certainly the most typically ‘Gothic’ of all of Russell’s work, but only because it exploits the familiar motifs with the greatest loyalty to its inspirations: and yet, notwithstanding its use of the oft-encountered trappings, it is a clever and nuanced story and cannot be classified as derivative despite its almost effortless appropriation of the old clichés. It manages to exist in a world that is both real and unreal, fleshed-out and believable and yet absurd beyond reason; it carries off the kind of crepuscular atmosphere present in the finest of Poe’s work, but remains something entirely fresh, and endlessly enchanting in its own dank and gloomy way.

The second stand-out is ‘Sagittarius,’ a witty, decadent little puzzle full of Grand Guignol irreverence and mystery. And while its twist ending can be seen coming from very nearly the first page, ‘the devil is in the details,’ as they say—and this small masterpiece has them in spades. Moreover, while ‘Sardonicus’ utilizes nearly every mouldering, immediately ‘Gothic’ trick at its disposal, ‘Sagittarius’ indulges in a milieu more allied with the fin de siècle glitter of Wilde: and this with great success. Between the pair, Russell displays both the variety and durability of his talents.

Similar to each other stylistically, ‘The Vendetta,’ ‘The Cage,’ and ‘The Runaway Lovers’ are feverishly macabre little gems that deserve a much wider audience than they have thus far received: they employ some of the same devices as ‘Sardonicus,’ but are quite different in their technique and trajectory. ‘Comet Wine’ is a wonderfully nimble Faustian piece that builds slowly and pays off, despite a somewhat lackluster conclusion. ‘Sanguinarius’ is an exquisite and engrossing retelling of the Bathory horrors, at once erotic and entirely discomfiting, with a final twist so subtle and diabolical that I can almost promise it will catch any reader quite off his guard.


Several of the stories in Haunted Castles utilize shared characters and situations, particularly as framing devices through fictional correspondence; this adds further cohesiveness to the collection, which helps to present it not so much as a ‘collected’ work but as a whole that achieves an even greater effect in concert than its pieces do individually: and therein lies the author’s genius. Ray Russell is a master of his craft and a man of rare, if eccentric, talent. Like Jackson, Bowles, and Lovecraft, he has helped to define the darker regions of 20th Century American short fiction and has set a standard for the modern Gothic that remains exceedingly difficult to eclipse.

8.31.2011

Review: Uncle Silas


Uncle Silas is simultaneously J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s greatest novel and also his most celebrated and widely known—which is a rare combination indeed. It is a thorough reworking of the Radcliffean mode and of the Female Gothic in general, but it is also something entirely fresh, concerning as it does elements as diverse as Swedenborgian mysticism, Collins-esque sensationalism, and—a relative rarity for its time and genre—the first-person, retrospective narration of a young, female protagonist. A classic work of 19th century Gothic, it is also generally considered one of the first examples of the ‘locked room mystery’ and contains many motifs that have now become common stock of detective fiction and of the mystery genre in general.

Written with the kind of lush and yet curiously straight-forward prose that characterizes all of Le Fanu’s fiction, Uncle Silas concerns, for the most part, three extremely well-written characters: the first, its titular hero-villain, is an impressive revision of the Byronic hero in all its complexity of characterization and is one of the more successful of these ‘stock types’ in all of Gothic literature; the second, our narrator Maud Ruthyn, is fleshed out to a degree that is much more three-dimensional than the typical 'Emily St Aubert' of most of these kinds of fictions; and the third, and perhaps most remarkable of Uncle Silas's cast, is the insidious, revolting, and utterly outrageous Madame de la Rougierre, who is worth the price of admission in and of herself. With these characters, Le Fanu takes the familiar mechanisms of the Gothic novel and twists and turns them about into fabulously crisp and colorful new shapes that are as enjoyable and darkly fascinating today as they were to Victorian audiences one hundred and fifty years ago.

The plot itself concerns the isolation of our young protagonist at the decaying rural estate of her rumour-haunted Uncle Silas after the death of her father, where she may or may not be the target of a plot that is still capable of chilling the blood. Silas, whose decades-old association with a ghastly crime which he may or may not have committed and which continues to plague him, has been entrusted with Maud’s guardianship; it becomes apparent, however, that this circumstance contains more of self-interest than devotion to his late brother. Madame de la Rougierre, whose early appearance in the novel is interrupted by the shift in action from Maud’s ancestral home to Silas’s mini-Udolpho, Bartram-Haugh, reappears as the novel begins to plunge towards its shockingly violent climax and brings with her a final word on the mysteries of Uncle Silas and its brilliant and compelling expansion of Mrs. Radcliffe's tropes. I won’t reveal much more in the way of story, but Le Fanu is successful in that many times we can see exactly where Uncle Silas is heading, and yet still we are surprised with exactly where we have wound up.

I suggest reading some of Mrs. Radcliffe’s fiction before taking on Uncle Silas, for context: though the trappings used to such success in Le Fanu's novel are so common and pervasive in Gothic fiction that one is probably aware of them without ever even having experienced them first hand: the dark mansion posing as a haunted castle and full of enigmas to be sorted through, a persecuted young woman and a scheming male anti-hero, the vicious foreigner, the vague and shadowed suggestions of a dubious ‘supernatural:’ these are the hallways, crypts, and secret passageways through which Le Fanu treads with adept, if provisional, reimagining. His subtle insertion of Swedenborgian axioms and the metaphysics with which they are entangled lends a unique cast to his storytelling that is distinctly his own in its breadth of consideration.

Of all the foundational works of the Gothic, Uncle Silas remains one of the most accessible for modern audiences and one of the more intriguing. One can see its influence on everything from The Turn of the Screw to Rebecca and beyond, and it is perhaps fitting: Le Fanu’s greatest novel is a variation on a theme and on an entire genre, and has itself been reimagined and reworked by modern practitioners of the Gothic to this very day. Like Radcliffe’s Udolpho, Le Fanu's own blueprint, it has been seized by its devotees and projected onto new sets of characters and motifs that continually expand the borders of the Gothic imagination while remaining firmly linked to a central conception and credo.

7.24.2011

Review: Melmoth the Wanderer


There are Faustian stories about the Devil and Faustian stories about Faust, but Melmoth the Wanderer transcends the conventions (and the trappings) of both.

Nested narratives that nearly defy our ability to maintain just who is speaking and who is listening spiral out of each other like smoke rising from a censer and coalescing with dreamy fog. This is the story of a man who sells his soul for a little extra time—of a man who currently has one-hundred-and-fifty years to prey on the helpless, the innocent, the guilty, the tortured, the desperate, the insane; to win them by hook or by crook into trading places with him and taking over his ultimate damnation. In Melmoth the Wanderer we are presented at times with stories within stories within stories within stories within stories: each detailing the sufferings of a mankind determined, apparently, to keep on suffering. And through it all—glimmering like a jewel in a pile of spent ashes, brooding in feverish gloom against the epic tempest of his agonies, tying together the helpless and essentially unrelated skeins of a persecuted humanity throughout the centuries of his eerie, tormented existence—is Melmoth the Wanderer.


Drawing heavily on the dizzy bombast of the Gothic tomes that came before him, Charles Maturin took the languid, peregrine prose of Mrs. Radcliffe and tempered it with the vicious cruelties of the Lewis set, the political musings of Godwin, and the pathos of Godwin’s daughter, Mary Shelley. It is both indebted to the whole of the Gothic tradition, and hence considered the last of the great Gothic novels, and yet also an incredibly inventive and original piece of writing that is less the ‘last great Gothic novel’ and more the first in a new school that would eventually include such luminaries as Poe, Stoker, and even H. P. Lovecraft. It is also very much concerned with itself as a text, and its embedded narratives have impacted the whole of literature, whether through Maturin’s imitators or those who imitated his imitators. In fact, his format has to be read to be believed—it is a brave and eccentric way to tell a brave and eccentric story.


Maturin’s Gothicism is high on theatrics and delirium, but also on subtle and often overwhelmingly personal philosophy. A Protestant clergyman who moonlit as a writer of sensationalistic and sometimes overtly anti-religious fiction and drama, Maturin lived a life of contradictions. And above all, Melmoth the Wanderer explores the nature of religion in its rawest and ugliest of dimensions: seemingly a strictly anti-Catholic text, Melmoth reveals itself to have a beef with nearly every major religion, including Protestantism. And though, in his dubious and distracting ‘footnotes,’ Maturin insinuates that the things coming out of his characters’ mouths (particularly the Wanderer’s) should not be taken for his own opinions, he has loaded his text with so many of these caustic observations that one cannot help but conclude that, even if he doesn’t agree with what he’s saying, it can hardly matter: his words stand alone. Whether Maturin intended his text to work on the levels that it does or not, Melmoth the Wanderer is a deeply antagonistic, even cynical, novel: and not just in regard to religion, but in regard to nearly the entire range of human history, development, and thought. And—the contradiction to crown them all—it is also a book that revels in the beauty of religion and humanity at their purest: a kind of poisoned love-letter to the possibilities of justice in a world gone mad.

Writers as diverse as Balzac, Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Vladimir Nabokov have referenced and admired Melmoth the Wanderer for its troubling, deeply romantic themes and its central character, who embodies them in the most hallucinatory and disturbing of ways. Melmoth, then, and Melmoth the Wanderer as a whole, serve as a mouthpiece for the rationalizations and, occasionally, the ravings of a man of uncommon considerations. It is a novel that out-Herods Herod at every available opportunity and also a novel of rare and almost incapacitating power. If a modern reader can manage to get along with its bizarre and maddening format of stories within stories, he will be rewarded with an experience that simply cannot be put out of mind: Melmoth is the stuff of nightmares, sure, but also of dreams—and visions.

5.14.2011

Review: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner


Something that has affected one as profoundly as this novel has affected me is difficult to do justice to in a brief review; but it is harder to do it justice in a longer format, so this will have to serve as a short, scattered, and unworthy paean to a novel of such sinister and cosmic power, that my fingers literally tremble when it comes up for discussion.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a dreamy, poisonous, utterly enthralling portrait of the latent (and perhaps extant, perhaps non-extant) evils of a world seeking the favors of God. But it is also a testament to the power of faith, for good or ill, and its pages do not drip solely with venom, but also with ambivalence: such heady themes leave a great deal open to interpretation, and like all of the best polemics, Justified Sinner leaves a great deal of its 'conclusions' open-ended.

Words, brief and fickle, fail to summarize Hogg's novel. It is a convoluted and absolutely fascinating study of doubles: double-thoughts, double-motives, double-narrators, double-faiths. That at its heart is a black and troubling mysticism more brooding and pernicious than even its titular Sinner is testament to its powerful mastery of the clean and the unclean, here tempered in a very personal alchemy to produce a narrative of unwavering enigma.

Above all, it is a novel of religion: a firm rejection of Calvinistic dogma and the caustic tenets of Predestination, and a peerless embodiment of the private faith at the roots of some of the darkest shadows of the Romantic's muse. Hogg is an eerie prophet, and this complex, eddying tale his opus, revealed through the syrupy fog of confession, violence, madness, and reprobation. The suspicion that we cannot trust multiple, and even third-party, points of view (despite the relative merits of each) is genius; the suggestion that an entity as singular and terrifying as Gil-Martin may both exist and yet also not exist, the mark of an author of exceptional gifts and striking power.

In short (and like the rest of these meditations, sketched out but not yet illustrated in color): perdition is spilled upon these pages, and yet also the unmistakable ghost of an uncanny and all-knowing grace.

Highly, highly recommended.

4.10.2011

Review: Vathek


Surely few stranger works of fiction exist in the annals of Romantic literature than William Beckford’s dreamy, opulent, and hypnotically weird Vathek, where an undeniable and outrageous breed of almost slapstick comedy mingles like wine in water with scenes of utter blasphemy and perversion as the eponymous Caliph Vathek, tempted by the sprawling subterranean riches of Iblis (the Islamic demon par excellence), wanders a one-way path to absolute damnation in one of the more meandering and scandalous journeys of self-destruction ever penned. Supreme destination: a climax of hearts exploding into smokeless fire.

Along the way, a parade of droll, chimerical tableaux pepper the narrative with delightful diversions: pious dwarves bearing baskets of fruit and chirping incessantly, to the great annoyance of our Caliph, Qur’anic verses; saucy women tricking eunuchs into flinging about on swings in a perfumed harem; great feasts, examined in exacting detail, of everything from roasted wolves and boiled thistles to pistachio-stuffed lamb and drugged sherbets; an entire city kicking about a goblin who has curled into a ball and taken to rolling about through the streets of Samarra and eventually over a cliff; a woman burning bits and pieces of mummies, rhinoceros horns, and human beings atop a dizzyingly high tower to placate the forces of evil; divining fish; one-eyed deaf mutes getting lusty with ghouls who have risen drowsily from the grave to feast on fresh corpses. This is certainly not Aladdin.

Vathek is charming and potently hallucinatory stuff meant to be taken in one giant dose, like a short story. Take a couple of hours and give it your undivided attention; Vathek rewards with that glorious sensation of ‘I need to read this out loud to somebody.’ This is certainly not high literature, but it’s not just trash (not even just ‘good trash’) either. Vathek is a sort of world unto its own: equal parts Arabian Nights and Castle of Otranto, and also something unclassifiable and gorgeous and grotesque. The prose, while unashamedly purple, suits its narrative and has an irony about it that never fails to endear. There’s something almost Gogolian in its bizarre sense of humor, and the terror here is both Gothic and admirably understated. A jumble of contradictions, Vathek is as fickle as its author—and just as fascinating: William Beckford, ostracized from high society for his homosexual affair with young ‘Kitty’ Courtenay, was one of the wealthiest and most eccentric men of his generation, and Vathek is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of his own self-indulgent fantasies, here taken to their most far-flung extremes of escapism and ‘oriental’ magnificence. And like so many other curiosities in literature, from A Season in Hell to Melmoth the Wanderer, Vathek is all the more entrancing when this unique and sometimes uncomfortably personal relationship with its author is taken into account.


Vathek's influence on the Gothic movement as a whole is evident from the first paragraph, where we are introduced to our naughty Caliph’s ability to strike men dead with a single ‘terrible’ gaze; and this absurd, and yet ultimately captivating, sense of wonder pervades the entire novel like the cloying, and yet rapturous, odor of heady rosewater. A treat for reflective minds and those interested in literary theatrics both, I count myself an ardent admirer.

4.01.2011

Review: Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood


The bleak, ancient, charnel terrors of a Canadian backwood in the loneliness of a brutal winter; the fever-pitch horror of an apartment tenanted by a vague memory of something ‘other’ and dripping with disease; the vicious portent of things not yet transpired, when seen through the eyes of a troubled and unwilling ‘accessory’ to tragedy; a haunted woodland; a peculiar, abandoned house—Algernon Blackwood’s spellbinding hand weaves each of these, the mundane as much as the startlingly original, into dark jewels of unwavering elegance. Never presumptuous, and yet always the portrait of sophistication, Blackwood’s brooding visions are full of the stuff of nightmare: and yet also dreamy, uncertain testimonies to the merciless and mystic facets of a Nature so close to man, and yet so incredibly distinct from him.

Favorites of mine here, in a collection more easily available and more diverse than other Blackwood offerings, include: ‘The Listener,’ which I would consider the most overwhelmingly unnerving and supremely horrifying tale I’ve ever read; ‘Accessory Before the Fact’ and ‘The Empty House,’ both popular Blackwood tales, which operate on more typical ‘supernatural’ levels than the more complex musings found elsewhere in this collection, but are nonetheless especially engrossing and quite scary; and ‘The Wendigo,' which is so blackly atmospheric that, a hundred years after being penned, it still resonates deeply on a level that is difficult to touch in the hearts of men and women who live so far removed from the Nature explored here.

Algernon Blackwood is, by a hair, my favorite author of the short story, and a singular treasure for readers of Weird fiction and the Gothic alike, who will experience a profound and moving admiration for what is truly the horror story elevated to art: there is terror here, certainly, but it is a terror that can only be explained as ‘beautiful’ in its own strange and otherworldly way. Never cliché, a master of atmosphere, and a glowing icon of the genre, Blackwood is required reading.

Wahid

This blog was suggested by Lovecraft's extended essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature. The title was stolen from an Ambrose Bierce yarn, now also the title of a glorious collection of ninety tales by that most effervescent and American of cynics. I hope I have tempted a muse, then, because we're already in good company at just three sentences in.

I will be featuring reviews and analysis of work dating from roughly the mid-18th to mid-20th centuries, exploring the thread that runs through the literature of terror, always reinterpreted and yet never disposed of completely, from Walpole's The Castle of Otranto onward. I will also be highlighting news in the world of books and publication, regarding new and past editions of note covering the range of authors and titles that fall under my scope of interest. To these ends, I hope to expand on Lovecraft's commentary and that of others, and to seek out my own insights and conclusions regarding that most enduring and curiously human of genres: the uncanny.

Please join me by bookmarking this page and checking back often.