Udolpho’s Mysteries

The carousels on Google can provide a great deal of information.  Looking at them, along with trusted lists of gothic novels, it became clear that one of the few classics I’d not read was Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.  It’s been on my shelf for many years, it’s shear bulk staring me down each time I turned in its direction.  Long books are, of course, fine if they keep you going.  Knowing this was published in 1794 (in four volumes) cast some doubt on the narrative earning the sobriquet of “page turner,” and thus it proved not to be.  I’m afraid my disposition meant that the gothicness of the novel (and it’s certainly there) didn’t speak to me as I hoped it might.  There are creepy castles and rumors of hauntings.  Lots of stormy nights and damsels in distress.  Still, it comes across as the problems of the wealthy and that has to be handled well in order to not turn off this poor reader.

Still, a novel of such fame being written by a woman in the eighteenth century is worthy of note.  More than that, Radcliffe was the most successful (in financial terms) professional writer in the decade that produced The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Her literary influence is undisputed.  The novel is, however, excessively long.  Descriptive prose style was common at the time and may seem excessive to modern readers.  This is, however, impressive for an author who never traveled to the regions about which she wrote.

About 600 pages in, in the edition I read, something caught my eye.  Much of the novel consists of descriptions of mountain ranges in France and Italy.  As one party is on its way up one of the inclines, one of the gentlemen mansplains some of the geological features.  Noting that sea shells are found at such elevations, and so far from any body of water, it is noted that this is evidence of the deluge.  What’s so astonishing about this is that even in the twenty-first century that explanation still has currency among biblical literalists.  The novel appeared before Charles Lyell, who would explain the ancient ages of rocks, was even born.  We have centuries of knowledge at our disposal that we still have a tendency to dismiss.  Interestingly, Radcliffe was famous for reviving gothic literature partially by explaining away any supernatural elements.  Of course, accepting standard religious teaching of the day would pretty much have been expected.  And yet the mysteries continue even over two centuries later.


Timely Terror

Fear comes in many colors.  Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic was getting such positive press that I didn’t wait for the paperback.  At first the title threw me a bit, but creepy old houses can be found in many places around the world, and the gothic often lurks in such structures.  The story builds slowly until the supernatural begins to seep in steadily and the reader realizes they’ve been hooked along the way.  In some ways it reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but the setting in Mexico gives Moreno-Garcia’s tale its own kind of zest.  Having a strong hispanic, female protagonist is a nice corrective to the political rhetoric we’ve been fed for the past four years.  As I said, fear comes in many colors.

Perhaps I’m not as afraid as I used to be when I read fiction.  Gothic, however, is all about setting the right mood.  It’s a creepy sensation that boundaries are being crossed and such things often take place in isolated locations.  The house owned by the Doyles—not exactly colonialists, but symbols are seldom exact matches—is marked by greed and power.  A kind of rot is everywhere evident, but the family must keep power within its own circle.  The parallels to a Trumpian outlook were perhaps not intentional, but national trauma can make you see things in a different way.  As Noemí attempts to rescue her cousin from the house, High Place itself participates in thwarting their escape.

Reflection after reading draws out some further insights.  Not only is the white Doyle family the  oppressive element here, they do so by religion.  Secret rituals and practices have made the patriarch a god—and here let the reader ponder—who builds his power on the oppression of others.  I have no idea if Moreno-Garcia was influenced by the nepotistic White House we’ve just experienced—eager to use political office for overt personal gain, and yes, worship—but she’s laid bare the ugly truths of white power.  I dislike racializing people, but race was invented by Europeans as a mean of oppression and keeping wealth within the grasp of a few individuals who would be surrounded by an empowered “white” race.  It worked in Nazi Germany and it came close to working officially in the United States that fought to vanquish it just seventy years ago.  Mexican Gothic is a moody book indeed.  It’s also a book, whether intentionally or not, that is an object lesson for our times.


The Abbey

In my efforts to satisfy the Gothic longing of October—such a melancholy month—I’ve been reading Jane Austen’s classic, Northanger Abbey.  I avoided this particular title for many years because I knew that the Gothic frights were all rationally explained.  Austen was such an accomplished writer that she was able to poke fun at the Gothic genre while participating in it, at least somewhat.  I actually read this novel with no idea concerning the plot or characters.  Sometimes for works of the western canon these elements are so well known that you kind of know what to expect.  Northanger Abbey, although appreciated, isn’t often considered Austen’s finest work.  In fact, it was her first novel finished, but was only published posthumously.  As I writer I can understand that.

The story follows Catherine Morland in a satire of Gothic novels.  In fact, Catherine’s favorite book is Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, one of the Gothic standard-bearers.  The first half of the novel (pre-Gothic) sets the story up with two love triangles formed in the city of Bath.  Austen excels at making the reader uncomfortable with characters.  So much so that the second (Gothic) part of the novel ends up making one of the formerly noble Tilneys,  father of Catherine’s love interest Henry, look downright snobbish and petty.  O, the egos of the privileged!  The fact that she threw this in just about ten pages before the close (in my edition) made the ending all the more anxious.

There are no ghosts in Northanger Abbey.  No murders or poisonings took place there.  No secret manuscripts contained cryptic truths.  No secret passages led to hidden chambers.  Austen sets readers up for all of these, only to bring the conceit down in a showcase of her satirical ability.  The novel still frequently ends up on lists of Gothic classics.  I wonder if readers don’t get the satire.  I had put off reading it for many years because I knew it to be good-natured fun-poking at a genre I unaccountably enjoy.  At least I know I’m not alone in this.  I’m glad, in any case, to have finally read it.  Jane Austen was a most capable writer, a master of portraying human foibles particularly well.  The problems of the landed gentry, however, as I’ve noted before, aren’t really of interest unless there’s actually a ghost or monster lurking in the shadows somewhere.  Without monsters even an imposing abbey owned by a spoiled petty nobility is just an abbey devoid of purpose.


Gothic Tales

Each year when autumn worms its way into my consciousness, I begin looking for the ideal gothic book.  I can test this by looking at the Goodreads lists of best gothic novels and noting how many of them I’ve already read. The thing now, since I’ve already covered much of the canon, is to discover modern writers who can still evoke that feeling I seek.  This is all complicated by the subjective nature of what readers term “gothic.”  Many of the books on the lists don’t fit my own working connotation, so I keep looking.  One recommended title was Jennifer Giebrecht’s debut novel The Monster of Elendhaven.  I’m still trying to decide whether it is gothic or not.

It’s a little hard to classify, actually.  It certainly has some gothic elements, as well as some horror.  There are secrets and plagues and gruesome murders.  There is a monster from a polluted sea, but not quite your grandfather’s monster.  A human monster.  Or at least partially.  The tale is written with some tongue in some cheek.  There are funny elements and there are many serious moments.  There’s magic and mayhem.  If I were to try to characterize it the closest I might come would be a Tim Burton treatment of horror.  Like Burton, Giesbrecht creates a Halloween mood, but sometimes the humor undercuts it.  This makes it difficult to pin down the work as a whole and figure out if this is the gothic I’ve been seeking.

Set in a time difficult to define and in a fictional nation, it is the kind of novel that can be read without much consequence.  The references to the Allfather make comparison with Nordic regions natural, and there is perhaps a touch of Beowulf here.  In crafting the monster Giesbrecht has made a pretty unlikeable character.  He is a monster, after all.  But not a sympathetic one.  As in other modern treatments he is a stand-in for chaos.  There’s also an environmental sensitivity here.  The monster arises from a polluted sea that derives from, of all things, human greed.  So maybe there’s a parable here.  A short book, it doesn’t take too much of a time investment, but it may leave you wondering what exactly it is that you just read.  It is dark, and gritty, and fun.  A nice combination for an October night.  Is it gothic?  That one’s a little harder to answer.  It depends on how I’m defining it on any particular day.


In Black

When autumn rolls around my hankering for gothic literature ratchets up.  It’s really my gothic sensibilities that make me watch horror films, seeking some kind of transcendence.  Some time ago I heard about the movie The Woman in Black, but I’ve never seen it.  I learned about the novel by Susan Hill, on which it’s based, and decided to check out the written form.  (I almost always like the book better than the movie anyway.)  The story is indeed moody, set in, as these stories often are, a remote part of the coast of England.  A lonely house cut off by the tide.  A hidden past full of secrets.  The plot is one of a vengeful ghost, and therefore the whole is somewhat supernatural.

I couldn’t help comparing it to Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, which is also set on the coast of England, and also features a house cut off by the tides.  The storylines are quite different beyond that, but it is often the setting that makes gothic tales so, well, gothic.  The Woman in Black builds up the story slowly, intimating that something is wrong near the start, but not really giving too much away until near the end.  It isn’t really the conclusion, however, that a gothic reader is after, as much as the feeling.  Being immersed in a spooky setting where you’re not sure what’s going on.  There’s a kind of release in that.

I’ve often tried to figure out why this type of story appeals to me.  It’s certainly something to do with my childhood.  We didn’t live in a very gothic place.  My hometown was working-class normal, it seemed to me.  When we moved into the first apartment I remember, the setting did become gothic to an extent.  It was an older building that still had gas jets jutting through the walls from the days before electricity.  One of the bedrooms was painted black.  There was a huge crack in the linoleum in the hall that had the potential to trip you if you weren’t paying attention.  It was there that I first became aware of liking gothic settings.  It was the place I discovered Dark Shadows and began to find it strangely homelike.  Many of us, even with less-than-ideal childhoods, often look back to them with a kind of happiness that we just can’t seem to attain as adults.  Mine included some gothic elements, and reading novels like The Woman in Black takes me back there, if only for a little while.


Setting the Mood

I can’t recall how I learned about Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, but it was one of those books I knew I wanted to read.  One thing I do recall is that I didn’t know it had anything to do with religion until I started it.  It became quite clear that the story—which is difficult to classify—revolves around religion and a kind of gentle horror of things not being what they seem.  Set on a lonely stretch of English coastland where strange things happen, a family takes their mute son to a shrine to have him healed.  The younger brother, not mute, narrates the events.  There are many creepy suggestions of what may be happening, but a full explanation is never given.  That’s kind of like religion itself.

While I don’t normally read the discussion points or classroom/book group discussion material after most modern novels, I found Hurley’s included essay on “Nature, Faith, and Horror” to be of interest.  Several of us, it seems, find the combination of religion, or faith, ties in well with fear.  That was a large part of what I was trying to get at in Holy Horror.  Hurley goes in a different direction with it.  A family under the overbearing religion of the matriarch does her bidding in the hopes of either keeping peace or participating in the healing her son.  We learn from the opening pages that her son Hanny develops into a minister, and therefore has some degree of normalcy.  Hurley is a master of revealing important factors only gradually.  It keeps the tension rising as the story goes along.  There’s no bloodbath, but there is unsettling mystery.

The story is probably best characterized as gothic.  That’s rare these days, and it is the sub-genre of horror that most attracts me.  The mood it casts is kind of a spell and it’s difficult to break.  The Smith family insists on the sacredness of place and on strict religion of the Catholic species.  Evangelicalism could easily lead to horror, and not infrequently it does.  The Catholic variety, however, feels older.  More arcane.  There are things only a priest knows.  And that knowledge can be a challenge to both the knower and the seeker.  The Loney will leave the reader with questions ticking away about what really happened.  These are things we’ll never know.  Those of us who’ve ever entertained religious vocations understand this feeling well.  It stands behind certain kinds of horror and in front of religion, tying them together.


Victorian Nightmares

J. Sheridan Le Fanu isn’t exactly a household name, but as a writer from the same era (and perhaps same cloth) as Poe, he was known for his gothic imagination.  Since he was Irish his work never really took off in America as some other writers’ did, and he’s certainly not likely to be found on bookstore shelves because there’s not great demand.  I have a fondness for gothic literature and Le Fanu’s name had been on my list for some time.  At a used bookstore I found one of his books, and as I was checking out the clerk said “I was just checking in another of his books,” so I bought that one too.  (When you’re paying just two dollars a pop for books, it feels like virtue.)  The latter turned out to be In a Glass Darkly, which apart from its biblical title, contains five stories loosely linked by a narrative framework.  Poe wrote that short stories should be read in one sitting, but these tale venture into novelette territory, with some requiring considerable time to finish.

That having been said, the experience was enjoyable enough.  Each story is quite different and they range from the vampire classic “Camilla” to a foiled murder mystery and a canonical ghost story or two.  While better known across the Atlantic, several of Le Fanu’s stories have been translated to film, and he was regarded as one of the best ghost story writers of his era.  Perhaps because modern readers have been subjected to much more subtle foreshadowing, some of the tales are predictable to those on the lookout for twist endings.  The Room in the Dragon Volant, for example, suggests that the mysterious lady at the masquerade is indeed the narrator’s adulteress love interest, although the final twist is nicely wrought.

Probably the most well-known of the stories in the collection is “Camilla,” the account of what’s regarded today as a lesbian vampire.  The tale is well-crafted, but the credulity of the narrator is almost unbelievable as the pieces fall together and the puzzle picture still isn’t seen.  Nevertheless, it’s a creepy account that has captured the imagination of filmmakers through the years.  It took me long enough to finish the book that the earlier stories had faded by the time I’d reached the end, but the fault lies with me, not the author.  As a gothic fix each of the narratives serves quite well.  My other Le Fanu purchase was a much larger book, so it will take some time to achieve that goal.  In the meantime, I’ll look forward to discovering more Victorian nightmares as autumn wends its way forward.


Premature Burial

I have recently finished writing an article for a collection of essays on the Bible and horror.  Have no fear—I’ll pass along details once it’s published.  I do have to wonder, though.  All those years I was teaching and publishing regularly in ancient Near Eastern studies nobody ever approached me about contributing.  It took coming out of my monster closet for that to happen.  Monsters, you see, are a guilty pleasure topic.  They’re so much fun that they hardly seem like work to write about.  Or read about.  I was a child when Dark Shadows aired as a daily soap opera on ABC.  For reasons about which I’m beginning to speculate I found this series strangely compelling.  Marilyn Ross (W. E. D. [William Edward Daniel] Ross) based some 32 of his over 300 novels on the series.  I collected them as a kid and then got rid of them when I went to college.  I’ve been collecting them again in a fit of nostalgia over the past several years.

I just finished Barnabas, Quentin, and the Crystal Coffin.  The story was actually quite different than typical Collinwood fare.  What drew me to these novels as a child was their atmosphere and, if I’m honest, the fact that Barnabas was a vampire.  Memories of youth are fleeting things at my age, but it may be that Barnabas Collins was my introduction to vampires.  I was four when the series first aired, and I’m not sure if I discovered it before I came across Dracula or if it was the other way round.  Dracula, once I was experienced enough to have an opinion on such things, was my favorite monster.  I liked the others as well, but he was rich and immortal—the things sickly kids in poverty idealize.

In my fascination with Dark Shadows I’m not alone.  Despite Tim Burton’s movie version, Johnny Depp (who is my age) admitted growing up wanting to be Barnabas Collins.  Friends about my age have discovered PBS’s recent re-release of the original series in all its campy glory.  For whatever reason, however, it is the books that always draw me back in.  They, for me, defined the Gothic novel.  Ross’s writing is formulaic and predictable.  His adjective choices feel forced and subtleness was never his strong point.  Still I can’t stop myself from occasionally dropping into the world he manages to recreate in the woods of Maine.  Afterwards I move on to more profound writing, but then, his work is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.


No Refuge

A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.  Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.  Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.  I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.  The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.  “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.  We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”  Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.

Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.  A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.  Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.  Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.  All pretty straightforward.  Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.  One aspect, however, does hold horror.  The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.  They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.

It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.  We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.  Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.  Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.  The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.  Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.  My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.  Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?


OBSO

Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a subscription service for institutions that gives access to many biblical studies resources produced by the press.  It also features current essays that stand on this side of the paywall, written on contemporary issues.  In a shameless self-promoting plug, I’d direct you to this link to see my latest publication.  You see, I’m not alone in looking at Bible through the lens of horror.  As the acknowledgements to Holy Horror reveal, many conversations were going on that led to that book.  While the ideas contained in it are my own, I’m by no means the only one to have noticed that the Good Book makes guest appearances in genre fiction.  One of the points I made to my students when I held a teaching post was that the Bible is ubiquitous in our culture, whether we know it or not.  Just look at the Republican Party and beg to differ.

The idea is not without precedent.  For those who read the Bible real horror isn’t hard to find.  The Good Book can be quite a scary book.  Consider for just a moment the final installment—Revelation, apart from being full of amazing imagery, is an amazingly violent book.  Attack helicopters and atomic bombs may not yet have been invented, but there was no shortage of ways to kill people in the pre-gunpowder world.  Revelation paints the world in the throes of horrible suffering and death.  Indeed, the completely fictional Left Behind series rejoices in the death of the unrighteous who are, well, left behind.  Even today there’s a significant segment of “Christianity” that rejoices in the chaos Trump has unleashed.

In the OBSO article I sketch a brief history of how this came to be.  The history could work in the other direction as well.  The fact is the Bible and horror have always gone fairly well together.  Among genre literature, however, horror is a distinctive category only after the eighteenth century (CE).  Early horror novels, under the guise of Gothic fiction, often involve religious elements.  Culture was already biblically suffused then.  This is a natural outgrowth of a would steeped in violence.  Personally, I don’t like gore.  I don’t watch horror to get any kind of gross-out fix.  My purposes are somewhat different than many viewers, I suspect.  What we do all have in common, though, is that we realize horror has something honest to say to us.  And it has been saying it to us since from in the beginning.


Better Late Than

It seems that Holy Horror is now available, although I haven’t seen it yet.  According to the McFarland website it’s in stock just in time for the holidays.  Those of you who know me (few, admittedly) know that I dabble in other social media.  One of my connections on Goodreads (friend requests are welcome) recently noted that he does not like or watch horror.  Indeed, many people fall into that category.  His follow-up comments, however, led me to a reverie.  He mentioned that reading the lives of the saints and martyrs was horrific enough.  One of the claims I make in Holy Horror is that Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a horror film.  My friend’s comment about martyrs got me to thinking more about this and my own revisionist history.

Traditionally horror is traced to the gothic novel of the Romantic Period.  Late in the eighteenth century authors began to experiment with tales of weirdly horrific events often set in lonely castles and monasteries.  From there grew the more conventional horror of vampire and revenant tales up into the modern slasher and splatter genres.  I contest, however, that horror goes back much further and that it has its origins in religious writing.  Modern historians doubt that the mass martyrdoms of early Christianity were as widespread as reported.  Yes, horrible things did happen, but it wasn’t as prevalent as many of us were taught.  The stories, nevertheless, were written.  Often with gruesome details.  The purpose of these stories was roughly the same as the modern horror film—to advocate for what might be called conservative social values.  The connection is there, if you can sit through the screening.

Holy Horror focuses on movies from 1960 onward.  It isn’t comprehensive, but rather it is exploratory.  I’ve read a great number of histories of the horror genre—a new one is on my reading stack even as I type—and few have traced this phenomenon back to its religious roots.  Funnily, like horror religion will quickly get you tagged as a weirdo.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both goths and priests wear black.  As I’ve noted before on this blog, Stephen King’s horror novels often involve religious elements.  This isn’t something King made up; the connection has been there from the beginning.  We may have moved into lives largely insulated from the horrors of the world.  Protestants may have taken the corpus from the crucifix for theological reasons, but for those who’ve taken a moment to ponder the implications, what I’m saying should make sense.  Holy and horror go severed hand in bloody glove.


Personal Gothic

As I continue work on Nightmares with the Bible, I am reminded just how influential Edgar Allan Poe has been in my life.  It’s not that I read Poe every day, but it’s more that his stories have stayed with me since childhood.  For an English term paper in high school, the last one I recall writing, I selected Poe as the subject.  Something of the sadness of his life made me feel as though we were kindred spirits, although I could never meet him, and never let him know that he would have had a friend if he had been born a maybe a century and a half later, and if possible, in Franklin, Pennsylvania.  If his fondness for drink came with him, he would likely have met my father in such circumstances.

Even today I feel a kind of fiercely protective interest in Poe, as if his poems and stories had been written exclusively for me.  Seeing a handwritten fine copy of “The Raven” on display in the Morgan Library and Museum brought tears to my eyes.  Like Poe, I strive to make a living as a writer, but unlike Poe, I cop out.  I’m too afraid of losing everything.  Jobs necessarily interfere with writing, and some jobs actively discourage it.  Nevertheless, I still feel the shudder when I think about the first time I read many of his stories.  This was, I suspect, what fed my young interest in horror.  It wasn’t the blood and gore of the slasher film, it was the quiet, sad, disturbing atmosphere of Poe.  It has been recaptured by few, in my experience maybe only by Shirley Jackson.

Those who write are connection seekers.  Writing is a way of testing to see if we alone see the world in our own way.  Will others respond?  Poe somehow, mainly after his own lifetime, touched a responsive chord with many.  His work is now very widely known.  His visage appears on everything from bandages to socks.  His stories and poems are endlessly retold, adapted, and parodied.  When I read Poe I hear someone speaking from a life of hard knocks.  His response was to strike back, through his writing.  The life story written by one of his relatives suggests that he wasn’t as gloomy and tortured as he is generally portrayed.  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, those of us who find gothic literature somehow redemptive know, once we close the cover, who it is we should thank.


Growing Shadows

As summer wends its way slowly toward autumn my reading becomes more gothic.  It feels as natural as the progression of the seasons, I suppose.  While waiting for the turn I’d been holding onto Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  Not having read any Zafón before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  My copy had been blurbed by Stephen King, and I figured that was pretty high praise.  I found the book through one of my web searches for the most gothic novels and this one takes a while, but I can see why it makes some of those lists.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was intended to be comic or serious, but that combination is an imitation of life itself.  We laugh, we cry, we shudder.

The story slowly builds, and I’ll address this further on Goodreads.  What I want to consider here is the nature of place.  Human beings—and I would argue animals as well—have a sense of place.  Space becomes sacred through events both dramatic and quotidian.  That’s why we make pilgrimages to places where our heroes lived.  Just to be there.  To think about it.  To feel it.  The Shadow of the Wind is a story of Barcelona during a time of war.  There’s no escaping the moody sense of old Europe in this tale.  In that sense religion is quite often casually mentioned.  It’s part of place in a way many Americans overlook.  The church bells I can hear everyday beg to differ, no matter how empty the pews may be.  Zafón wants to share his gothic Barcelona with a story that leads to real shivers.

It would be a stretch to call this a horror novel, but it is in the sense that V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic is.  It reminded me at several points of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (my copy of which was destroyed in a flooded garage).  Many lives, I suspect, have quiet gothic elements to them.  I know that mine does.  While there may be a little supernatural at work in The Shadow of the Wind, most of the action is believable.  This is the way people behave.  The way they treat, and mistreat one another.  While the days are still hot around here, the angle of the sun in the sky doesn’t lie.  We’re fast approaching the equinox from which we’ll slide into the long nights of winter.  And reading, the more gothic the better, will help us make it through no matter where we are.


Bitten by Religion

The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be.  Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated.  Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe.  It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate.  Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention.  It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations.  Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.

While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one.  It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website.  Novel reading takes some concentrated effort.  Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through.  And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are.  I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).

My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers.  The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character.  The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery.  Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context.  Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark.  It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other.  The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced.  And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not.  And serpents may not be what they seem.


Monsters and Men

dreadful-pleasuresHorror films are something you either “get” or you don’t. I have no empirical evidence for that, but then again, “getting” is hardly a precise verb. In my recent desire to find some explanation for my own fascination with the genre, I turned to James B. Twitchell’s Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. This is a smart book. Twitchell, an English professor, knows to include Gothic novels in his accounting for this strange addiction. He has several insightful things to say about the differences between terror and horror. He gives a fairly complete analysis of the “big three”—vampires, Frankenstein monsters, and werewolves/wolf men/Jekyll and Hydes. Still, at the end, I have to wonder if he really “gets” the monsters he explores. Part of this is his early admission that he didn’t grow up with monsters, but that he was introduced to them academically. Another part of it is his sometimes dismissive style when talking about movies that meant a great deal to us monster boomers when they came out. Either you get it or you don’t.

Still, I recommend this book for those who want to make sense of some of the hidden dynamics of classic monsters. That the analysis is sexual should come as no surprise. Twitchell finds evidence for a sublimated incest in many of his creatures, but the true fan knows there is more to them than that. The monster does indeed cross boundaries—that’s what monsters do, after all—but that’s only scratching the surface with their claws. Of course, the book suffers from having been written perhaps a little too early. Although there is protest to the contrary, horror films have grown up considerably since the 1980s. Not all of them, of course. The same thing could be said of the kids I knew in high school.

Having a single theory to approach a phenomenon is respectable. So respectable that it’s called Occam’s Razor and everyone is expected to shave with it. I’ve never liked shaving. The more I reflect on reality, the more it seems to me that answers are more complex than single causation. Sometimes the simplest answer isn’t the most parsimonious. Sometimes there is far more going on than meets the cyclops’ eye. In my experience, limited though it may be, the horror movie has unexplored dimensions. One of them is the coping ability that they offer when evens such as 11/9 occur. There’s no simple way to understand monsters, but if we see them around enough, we might just be able to survive them.