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.


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.


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.