This weekend being the centenary of the birth of Charles Addams is as good a time as any to blog about things Gothic among which I’ve been wallowing for a few weeks.
Since a stay in a haunted room in Annaghmakerrig a while ago I’ve been drawn to stories about places and characters that dwell on the borders of consciousness and reality. I’ve written one or two, but I wanted to explore some antecedents of the horror genre before going any further and over the Christmas holiday I read some works of Edgar Allan Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Montague Rhodes James (M.R. James), Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Bowen. I finished Sean O’Brien’s ‘The Silence Room’ (Comma Press, 2008) too. He notes that his story ‘Close to You’ was suggested by a passage on ‘Carmilla’ in an introduction to Le Fanu’s stories, In a Glass Darkly.
‘Le Fanu’s was the first vampire tale whose protagonist is a female vampire. The lesbian relationship between the two main characters is of its time, implied rather than explicit. I’m not a Buffy-Twilight-True-Blood follower, but I was interested to read ‘Carmilla’, Fanu’s original vampire prototype and the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Laura is a rather passive character, but Carmilla is languidly evil and some of the dream sequences make for hypnotic reading.
In a Glass Darkly is a collection of gothic tales in which a doctor of ‘metaphysical medicine’ allows the reader to decide whether the supernatural happenings are real or the result of the haunted victims’ organic brain disease.
Sean O’Brien’s story is about an hilariously patronizing gothic stalker obsessed with a female Irish academic who is writing a book on the Gothic titled The Gothic Reviv’d which makes the stalker smile. It made me smile too, as do many of O’Brien’s blackly humorous stories. O’Brien’s stalker is horrified to discover that the academic has betrayed him by writing in her book that ‘Carmilla’ was ‘only a story’. She is an unbeliever! It’s a wonderfully playful story that makes you glad you can’t completely suspend your disbelief. The narrator is in no doubt about his own existence (at least I think it’s a ‘him’), and ends by saying ‘Desire and the clock have made an appointment, and when that comes we shall see what is real and what imagined’.
Le Fanu influenced a range of writers as diverse as M.R. James, Bram Stoker, Elizabeth Bowen and James Joyce.
I live near the Phoenix Park and may of his stories take place there and in the nearby village of Chapelizod: Ghost Stories of Chapelizod and later his novel The House by the Churchyard.
A modern reader might find some of the stories less than spine-chilling and some might dislike the long sentences used by a 19th century author, but I found the ones I read by Le Fanu readable rather than turgid and always meticulously grammatical. The stories are interesting in the context of the history of Gothic fiction and of social life in an early 19th century Irish village.
Le Fanu was known as the ‘British Poe’ (he was Anglo-Irish). I’ve always admired Poe’s control of the musical elements of poetry and the endless, beautifully structured sentences of his prose. I get carried away by them, especially in the opening of his well-known ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. Some of the stories might terrify you, depending on your sensibility, but they’re worth reading just for his language and his dark, brooding, half-crazed protagonists.
Wilkie Collins’ novella The Haunted Hotel is a mix of ghost story, gothic mystery and psychological thriller. There’s a long cast of characters, which can be confusing, but it is engaging. He is best known for The Woman in White and The Moonstone. There are some short stories along with the novella in the volume I got and I’m looking forward to reading those.
M.R. James ‘s stories are inhabited by palpable forces of evil. Figures appear in paintings, voices of demons are heard, sepia drawings contain horrors that are reawakened. Ordinary objects and situations become nightmarish. Some are less frightening than others, to a modern reader at least, but there is something genuinely creepy about ‘The Mezzotint’ in which a print of an old manor-house changes perceptibly to include a spooky figure that wasn’t there before. There are one or two passages which I’m not sure are intentionally funny where the narrator intrudes, as is the style of the time, to comment, for example, on a game of golf: ‘…which golfing persons can imagine for themselves, but which the conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing persons’.
I must remember to write that next time I have to describe anything golf related.
Some of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels and short stories were familiar to me, but she too became fascinated by the supernatural and produced a number of stories which were later published in collections: Encounters, The Cat Jumps and The Demon Lover. In the title story of the last collection a woman’s fickleness engenders its own terror, in ‘Green Holly’ the characters are beset by ghosts of murder and ‘Hand in Glove’ is an absorbing story of supernatural revenge. In her other ghost stories she seems to accept ghosts as part of the continuity of time.
It’s ironic that it was my brand new Kindle that allowed me to access most of the nineteenth century gothic tales I read. I have to admit that my first Kindle purchase was the anthology published by Five Stop Story (to be read in five stops on the London Underground), in which one of my own stories, ‘Mirage’, features, having been published on the website last year.
Does anybody else have a passion for the Gothic? Are there any authors you particularly admire, contemporary or older? Any films come to mind? Recommendations welcome. And Happy New Year with no nightmares!
- Short stories: Elizabeth Bowen and Tessa Hadley (guardian.co.uk)
- Early ’60s Horror (5) (hilobrow.com)
- Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Gothic (19th century) (whisperinggums.wordpress.com)
- Irish Times article