Monday, November 19, 2012


Fate by L.R. Fredericks
This was an odd, if comprehensive, novel.  The fact that it covers more or less the entire 18th century shows its ambitions.  Its epic scale is somewhat lessened by the meandering narrative and a curious lack of pace.  I found myself wondering by the end what the previous book in the loosely connected series, Farundell, was like and if it shed any more light on this curious way of constructing a novel.

Fate is the life and life-after-death of Francis Damory, an English aristocrat whose “fate” entwines him with the study of alchemy and the seeking of immortality.  So, no, he is not a vampire, he is not a ghost; he has more in common with Nicholas Flamel in Harry Potter.  He is a sympathetic narrator whose past is littered with fragments of famous figures and landmark fiction of the 18th century; I was gratified to see in the Select Bibliography some books I have read.  All of Fate is highly mysterious and begins with 17-year-old Francis glimpsing a strange book which links to a dream he had as a child of his ancestor Tobias Damory.  His parents’ disapproval of his wish to study alchemy like Tobias has overtones of Frankenstein’s stumbling around Agrippa; his sexual education throughout the book, begun by his brother Sebastian, is shaded by Casanova’s memoirs.  His encounter with the haunting Contessa feels like an episode from Madame LePrince de Beaumont’s Beauty and the Beast (if heavily eroticized!).  

The first third of the book was the most interesting to me; I enjoyed reading about Damory’s time at Oxford, meeting social misfit and chemist Purefroy as well as neo-pagan Meryll, alchemist Enderby, bookish Agnes and his lower class love, Johanna.  However, this section of the book ended with an abrupt, violent episode which truly shocked and disturbed me.  I kind of wanted to stop reading at this point, but I soldiered on. 
Back in London, Francis’ sister Isabel’s great social experiment, the New Eden school for urchins, unfortunately demonstrates the fallibility of humanity and leaves many threads unresolved.  Francis falls in love with a castrato.  The rest of the book sees Francis moving through Europe and the East, from decadent Paris to Constantinople, between shipwreck and magical islands off the coast of Venice.  Like much of 18th century literature, it is obsessed with incest.  It’s a huge tapestry of many threads of a great swathe of the world at this time, incorporating characters as diverse as conjoined twins and American heiresses.  

I think Fate could almost be described as a Naturalistic novel despite its many varied and fantastic occurrences.  I say this, because although Sister Carrie, for example, had an overarching theme, its structure was not the dramatic one of most novels.  It was much like a word-of-mouth story related to you by someone gossiping, or writing in her journal.  “This happened.  Then this happened.  Then this happened.  I thought this.  Then this happened.”  If Francis Damory purports to be the sum total of his life, it is a still a life related at almost real-time speed, glossing over very little.  Pages and pages passed and  I thought Damory must be 15 years older but, no, only 2 or 3 years had passed.  In this, it felt quite different from The Anatomy of Ghosts, set in a similar time frame, with similar concerns, and even a similar setting (Cambridge instead of Oxford). 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Monk

The Monk

“Dreams, magic, terrors of mighty power
Witches and ghosts who roam at midnight hour.”

Matthew Lewis’ enduring legacy is with this sensational 1796 Gothic horror novel, set in direct opposition as the male Gothic to Ann Radcliffe’s (nearly) contemporaneous female Gothic.  While Radcliffe inaugurated a “brand” so successful Austen felt the need to parody it, Lewis never quite achieved the same success twice, and until Poe, I would argue, there was no one to really receive the torch that he passed on.  I’d read a bit of The Monk before and expected it to be similar to Melmoth the Wanderer—interesting enough, taken in small doses, but incomprehensible when taken as a rambling whole.  I’m surprised to say that I loved The Monk.  It was full of excess of every kind, and though not constructed with the same economy of form, witty writing, and attention to a single philosophical ideal as The Picture of Dorian Grey, I feel justified in comparing the pleasure I derive from one to that derived from the other.  

Lewis knew that the devil’s in the details and, like Frankenstein, The Monk owes some debt to Paradise Lost (and no doubt many other works).  Lewis was berated for creating a novel many saw as encouraging vice, for, in Blake’s famous words about Milton, taking the Devil’s part.  If you read the novel on a purely literal level, you can throw those criticisms out the window:  the evil Monk and his accomplices are given their just desserts at the end of the story, proving that crime does pay.  However, perhaps what the more sophisticated critics were objecting to was the gleeful way Lewis depicted his sinners, making them ten times more interesting than his saints.  Lewis was only 19 when he completed his book, and sometimes the prurient, violent imagination of a 19-year-old (pre-video games and sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll) wallows in spectacle, salaciousness, and gore for their own sakes.  Despite this, I think this is quite an impressive achievement for his age, and deserving of a lot more attention that it gets.  

Lewis inherits from Walpole a Renaissance Catholic setting of Madrid, which no doubt these Protestant Englishmen saw as credulous, superstitious, and, besides, more earthy—a prime spot to displace all of their own anxieties!  The story begins with saintly abbot Ambrosio, a 30-year-old orphan whose virtue is matched only by his eloquence (and, we assume, his smokin’ hot good looks).  However, it is suggested by Lewis that the seed of Ambrosio’s downfall is his pride which is manifest from the beginning—is he therefore predestined for a fall, à la Satan?  Or is this simply a masked criticism on all self-righteous men, whether they be Catholic or not?  Ambrosio’s path crosses with that of Agnes, a reluctant (and pregnant) nun and protagonist of strand 2 of this novel, and this incident, too, suggests that Ambrosio’s evil was merely dormant, given he refuses mercy to this unfortunate girl.  So far, so good:  Lewis seems to be saying that virtue is meaningless if not tempered by modesty and compassion.  

Enter Matilda.  After the insipid female characters I’ve experienced in The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein, Matilda comes as a welcome (if sinful) relief.  Given what we find out by the end of the novel, you can argue Matilda’s character is all calculation and insincerity, but I prefer to believe Ambrosio’s demon at the end was lying to him.  I’d like to believe that Matilda is a passionate, selfish and sensuous woman who enjoys playing long games—in short, a very rare commodity in literature up to that point and by far the most interesting character in The Monk.  Matilda is in (erotic) love with Ambrosio, and in order to get close to him (merely for observational purposes) she disguises herself as a novice in the monastery.  She succeeds, Ambrosio becoming her best friend.  Imagine the uninitiated Monk’s surprise when Matilda reveals her gender and her love.  Ambrosio is horrified yet titillated.  Matilda wants to remain as she is, an unconsummated lover and best friend in a platonic fashion, but Ambrosio is determined to expose her.  Then she threatens suicide.

As She uttered these last words, She lifted her arm and made a motion as if to stab herself.  The Friar’s eyes followed with dread the course of the dagger.  She had torn open her habit, and her bosom was half-exposed.  The weapon’s point rested upon her left breast:  And Oh! that was such a breast!  The Moon-beams darting full upon it, enabled the Monk to observe its dazzling whiteness.  His eye dwelt with insatiable avidity upon the beauteous Orb.  A sensation til then unknown filled his heart with a mixture of anxiety and delight:  A raging fire shot through every limb; the blood boiled in his veins, and a thousand wild wishes bewildered his imagination.

Pretty passionate stuff for the 18th century?  Certainly, although it has the touch of a teenager’s lust.  Is it histrionic and full of excess?  Of course.  Yet I can’t help be sucked into the drama.  Ambrosio succumbs, by the way, and has his first sexual encounter with Matilda.  Ambrosio is prevented from reacting in a predictable fashion after his lust is sated by Matilda falling ill (it is not explained how the doctor does not realize her gender).  She reveals that she sucked poison out of a snakebite of Ambrosio’s to save his life and in so doing, has caused her own death.  The choice is for Matilda to die “virtuous” or for her life to be saved by a pact with a demon.  As you can imagine, the now-infatuated Ambrosio chooses the latter.                                                                          

After this sensational series of events, we follow strand 2 of the story, which, though an adventure story, is much more mundane and concerned with similar themes to Castle of Otranto (which the whiff of scandal provided by Agnes’ pregnancy, as related above).  In following the exploits of two Spanish noblemen, we veer toward Melmoth the Wanderer’s territory as well as the requisite banditti required in all 18th century Gothic fiction (no, really).  Despite the seeming short shrift I give it here, it is mildly entertaining, particularly the story of the Bleeding Nun.  (Two lovers are unconventional enough to pose as ghosts in order to elope, but the tables are turned when the man accidentally elopes with the real spirit of the Bleeding Nun.  They also encounter in passing the Wandering Jew who, disappointingly, never returns to the novel.)  There are even a smattering of interesting female characters, some silly and some strong, and a prototype for Matilda, Beatrice de las Cisternas.  

When we return to the narrative of the Monk, we are swept back into Ambrosio’s downfall.  Eventually he experiences too much of a good thing; ie, he tires of Matilda.  Unfortunately, he can’t stick to monogamy and eventually lusts over Antonia, a saintly girl whom Lewis consciously makes as simple and stupid as possible.  Like the corruption of virtue at the heart of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Ambrosio’s attempted seduction of Antonia has a sort of car-wreck potency, so you cannot help but be fascinated by his efforts.  They are all in vain, however, until Matilda offers to secure him supernatural help.  In one of The Monk’s most arresting scenes, Ambrosio is coerced into accepting demonic help by voyeuristic lust.  Various events intervene to thwart Ambrosio until he is forced to give up his soul to evil in order to rape a drugged Antonia in a charnel-house, after which she immediately expires.  Meanwhile, incredibly wrought stuff has been happening within strand 2 which has echoes of the French Revolution.  For devout Catholic readers, however, I can see the scale of acceptability has been tipped as an enraged mob tears nuns (some of them corrupt, some not) to pieces and sets a convent on fire (!).   

If Matilda is revealed to be a sorceress, she always maintains a stereotypically masculine superiority over Ambrosio, who cowers throughout the novel.  I love the way Lewis alludes to the frailty of human nature through Ambrosio, who blames everyone but himself for his downfall, and even to the end wants to preserve his appearance of virtue, even if he knows he has long since ceased to be virtuous.  Ambrosio’s total lack of courage manifests ultimately in his relinquishing of his hope of redemption in the afterlife by signing his soul away, quite literally, to Satan.  The demons have been interested in Ambrosio’s soul for a long time, and even though puerile Antonia suffered a terrible death, she at least is guaranteed heaven.  Meanwhile, the strand 2 characters achieve a happy ending by courage and suffering and, amazingly, despite Agnes’ conceiving a child out of wedlock and then losing it due to be imprisoned by nuns in the catacombs (!), she and her paramour end up together.  

By the time he had written The Monk, Lewis had visited the Hague and Weimar, so although not born of direct observation, his Madrid rings a bit more truly than other Gothic writers’ Catholic countries.  So, too, are there within The Monk glimpses of personal experience which do not always reflect well on the author:

‘. . . you will even pardon me when I acknowledge, that in an unguarded moment the honour of Agnes was sacrificed to my passion.’
Lorenzo’s eyes sparkled with fury:  A deep crimson spread itself over his face.  He started from his seat, and attempted to draw his sword.  The Marquis was aware of his movement, and caught his hand.  He pressed it affectionately.
‘My friend!  My Brother!  Hear me to the conclusion!’

Lewis subtitles The Monk “A Romance,” and though this is a fair description up to a point, it is also a rollicking, baroque, sensuous tale of damnation and descent.   


Frankenstein (1818)

“It was a dreary night of November . . .”

Given my love of the Gothic, it’s absurd that I’ve waited until the age of 28 to read Frankenstein, arguably the most literary, if not the most famous, of the Gothic tales.  I’m not sure what has prevented me other than not coming across it in school.  I thought to myself that 2012 was the year I would finally do it, and given that the actual text is surprisingly short (especially considered next to Dracula and, more relevantly perhaps, to Mrs Radcliffe’s romances) it was no great struggle.  I wonder, though, if my hesitancy was some instinctual fear that I would be disappointed.  Because I actually was a bit disappointed.   

It’s strange to quantify this disappointment.  I chose the 1818 text because I had been informed, contrary to critical belief up until recently, that it was preferable given it was more raw and creative a text; Shelley was nineteen, I believe, when she began drafting it.  I know the story of its composition probably better than I know the book itself; I have seen several film versions (who hasn’t?) and heard at least one (very faithful) radio adaptation.  Given that it has endured far more both in critical terms and popularly than Mrs Radcliffe’s romances, it is important for being one of the few female-authored classic Gothic texts.  I also wonder whether having read the introduction to the Oxford edition of 1998 by Marilyn Butler, I was led to too high of expectations:  basically, that the sum is less than the parts.

I love Dracula, and while it’s totally unfair (and not really relevant) to compare the two, I couldn’t help contrasting my reaction to reading the former (which was pleasure and elation) with the latter (some frustration, some indifference, and some interest).  I feel, on the contrary, that I should really read Shelley’s father, Godwin’s, Gothic novels in order to understand her contribution more fully.  Shelley’s work is demonstrably different from Radcliffe’s, and no one would presume to exchange Radcliffe’s novel(s) for Shelley’s.  I like the idea that the book can work on the folk tale level, with allusions to Cornelius Agrippa’s sorcerer’s apprentice, and to contribute to the then-current (1818) debates on science, humanity, and the soul.  

My favorite part of the story has always been the frame narrative, and this is something that (again, perhaps relevantly, perhaps not) Frankenstein shares with Dracula.  Walton’s journey to the Arctic, as described through letters to his sister, is not so different in some senses from Jonathan’s letters to Mina about visiting Romania (and vice versa).  There’s something very compelling, to me, about a stranger coming upon the end of this tale in a dangerous, primal environment.  (See Lockwood’s arrival at Wuthering Heights for another excellent example.)  Unfortunately, Walton himself—in this version especially—is not a likeable character, or even a particularly interesting one.  Forgive me for asking too much of Mary Shelley, but a bit more travel narrative, a bit less abstract theorizing, would have, for me, told me a lot more about Walton as a proto-scientist/explorer and as a person.  

However, Frankenstein himself is an extremely unlikeable and almost unsympathetic character.  By the end, I really rather wished he would hurry up and die.  The problem with Frankenstein is that he doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and that can be very frustrating to a reader; at least, it makes it difficult for me to take him seriously.  I understand that Shelley softened Frankenstein’s character in the 1831 version, making him more religious, more repentant, and in general less of a jerk.  I can understand why she did this (especially as the 1830s were heading into a more sentimental Victorian age) but, even if I don’t like Frankenstein in 1818, I admire her artistic choice to make him a bleak, unapologetic character, more akin to Heathcliff than Rochester (though I feel none of the attraction Frankenstein that I do to Heathcliff).  Frankenstein also has a weird tendency toward wussiness.  Jonathan Harker may seem remarkably effeminized to modern readers, but Frankenstein falls down with illness every five seconds, seemingly, and at extremely convenient times.  Despite this, his immune system is apparently so strong that he can last a few months in the extreme conditions of the Arctic.  What gives?  (See unreliable narrator, further on.)

Furthermore, I really found myself disappointed in Shelley’s female characters.  Mrs Radcliffe’s heroines are hardly nuanced characters of realistic shading, but then Jane Austen had died only the year before Frankenstein was published, and it is beyond question that her female characters are superior to Shelley’s.  I have tried to ask myself why this should be.  Surely, as a woman, Shelley would have wanted to present realistic and/or interesting female protagonists (say what you want about Mina and Lucy in Dracula, they are at least interesting).  What prevented her?  Was it plot necessity, which requires the women in Frankenstein’s life—his dependents—to be continually victimized?  Was it feminist subtext, suggesting that the repression of women resulted in characters that, at least as far the male narrators are concerned, are backdrop?  Was it a double-bluff resulting from the birth and post-natal depression inspiration taken from Shelley’s own life?  Was it her youth as a writer and reliance on some conventions in her first novel?  I am certainly open to suggestion.  I think it is without question that Shelley herself would have made a far more interesting heroine than Elizabeth, Victor’s mother, Justine, and Agatha (though Zafie has the potential to be the most interesting female character).  

The implication of guilt in furthering Frankenstein’s vain projects is interesting, more so in this 1818 version, where his father is implicated more and Inglostadt marginally less.  It is interesting to me, moreover, that Inglostadt can be so much to blame in the first place; the amount of freedom Frankenstein is given might be a subtle class criticism on the (decadent) aristocrat’s carefree manipulation of the world around him, damn the consequences (then again, it might not, given that Frankenstein was modelled at least in part on her husband, Percy).  Another disappointment for me was the lack of description concerning the way Frankenstein brought his creature to life.  To someone used to the step-by-step, journal-recorded detail of Dracula, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Frankenstein’s generalizations are frustrating.  “After days and nights of incredible labour and fatigue, I succeeded in discovering the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”   Frankenstein seeks knowledge for knowledge’s sake; he does not seek immortality/reanimation to save a loved one, for example.  (I love the way that the Jekyll & Hyde musical felt it had to make Jekyll’s quest the result of his vow to save his father from madness after having been committed to a mental asylum; what a 20th century way of giving a framework of psychology to a Jekyll who, in the book, is rather a nasty character on his own.)  Frankenstein’s description of the Creature, too, is disappointingly vague (though, I suppose this allows the Creature to assume anyone’s nightmare shape and to stand in for any number of bogeymen).  It is also difficult to believe that, until the deed was done, Frankenstein had a mental block and could not see that this sewn-together corpse he was putting together was not, indeed, a beautiful object.  (Though, in the context of The Monk, I suppose the whole thing could stand in as a metaphor for sexual gratification.) 
Nevertheless, as a completely unreliable narrator, Frankenstein’s conception of and reaction to the entirety of the novel comes into question.  By his own admission, almost all of his own story could be a lie, an exaggeration, or a half-truth.  The only “proof” we have is of Walton’s letters, presumably discovered after his death; if we choose to disbelief even Walton’s story, we have one massive deception, which is really interesting to contemplate.  I have read criticism before that suggests the Crew of Light fabricated the whole of their “evidence” against Dracula and that the king of vampires could be construed, through careful reading of the “facts” of the text, as the victim.  Frankenstein could be entirely a parable constructed by a delirious Walton with no corroboration needed from the crew, if he doesn’t survive the trip, that is.  

The most satisfying and startling section of the book is when the Creature is allowed to tell his own story.  The confrontation on the glacier is the prose equivalent of Friederich’s paintings of the sublime.  This section is amazingly creative; can you imagine in 1818 being asked to dream up how a fully-formed semi-human would describe birth and infancy?  (In a sense, Shelley had a blueprint in Milton, to whom she owes an acknowledged debt; Eve’s first thoughts and actions in Paradise Lost are fascinating.)  The Creature experiences sensations without recognizing how they are generated; in short, a sensory overload overwhelms him.  His birth has been a hard one, and his upbringing lonely, confusing, unpleasant, and overpowering.  Only a reader with a heart of stone could fail to empathize with the Creature and, in my opinion, even in the 19th century surely would have looked beyond the superficial abnormalities and accepted him as better than his creator (or am I being unnecessarily generous?).  

The incidents with the DeLaceys are the most “tale-like” of the novel and follow the most closely on from Rousseau and Walpole himself; nevertheless, they are there for satirical purposes and soon shatter in a devastating (and highly dramatic/cinematic) way.  It’s strange that the reader’s hope is raised, in a half self-revulsed manner, that Frankenstein will consent to make the Creature a mate.  (Surely Frankenstein’s fear that the world will get populated by mini-monsters is unfounded, unless the Creature has the same miraculous powers of insemination that Edward Cullen does.)  The Creature’s anguished confessions of complete wretchedness after the death of Frankenstein are, again, one of the most masterful sections of the book.  His decision to throw himself on a funeral byre is both incredibly sad and somehow intensely poetic.  “Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all human kind sinned against me?  Why do you not hate Felix, who drove his friend from his door with contumely?  Why do you not execrate the rustic who sought to destroy the saviour of his child?  Nay, these are virtuous and immaculate beings?  I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on.”  This put me very much in mind of the narrator of Phantom of the Opera’s (considerably less grandiose) speech about Erik wishing only to be loved for himself. (Has anyone ever speculated on Shelley’s influence on Leroux?)  

Perhaps it will be necessary for me to think on and revisit Frankenstein before I can regard it as highly as I regard Dracula.    

The Castle of Otranto

The Castle of Otranto

“It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romance, the ancient and the modern.  In the former, all was imagination and improbability; in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success.”  

I have been a fan of the Gothic probably all my life, but this relationship was never formalized until 2003 when I took the Gothic Horror course from the University of New Mexico’s Honors program.  I loved it and have since turned my eye toward all things Gothic (especially literature) with enjoyment.  

However, I had never read the granddaddy of them all, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, which is an amusing example of art inspiring life inspiring art inspiring hundreds more years of art!  To explain, Walpole was interested in the Gothic, as in the style of architecture you associate with Notre Dame in Paris.  He was also interested in medieval and Renaissance values and, as I understand, preferred to live in the past rather than in his 18th century present.  So in order to indulge himself (given he was a gentleman with a private income), he built Strawberry Hill, which is a Gothic architectural fantasy.  Then he had a dream while within the building that inspired The Castle of Otranto.  This novel(la) inspired all the other Gothic writers who soon followed, and the rest is history, as they say.

I didn’t have very high expectations for Castle of Otranto, I have to say.  I’d heard the plot was meandering and convoluted and the whole thing was difficult to read.  What you have to remember, however, is that in 1764 when he wrote it, the novel as a form was still in its infancy.  Every new novel was going to be an experiment in form and even content, and throughout the century debates raged on whether the novel had any instructive value or worth or whether it was frivolous, even corrupting, entertainment.  The subtitle is “A Story,” and I was surprised to find it actually a cracking good yarn.  

The plot is most definitely meandering, but in a weird sense, it’s like a historical novel, and an incident-filled plot filled with sorcery, fatalism, and the supernatural evokes comparisons to an attempt at writing prose after Shakespeare.  In what would become a hallmark of the Gothic style, the “editor” purports to have found a manuscript from 1549 which may be as old as from the 13th century, even though it is obviously Walpole writing the story himself; in another hallmark of the style, it is set in feudal Italy.  It is a story of dynasty and the dormant fears of lack of legacy and incest bubbling under the surface; there are hidden noblemen, and, as in Shakespeare, improbable coincidences concerning a long-lost father and son.  Also, like Shakespeare, there are interludes of lower class comedy; the retention of such characters for these purposes continues into fin de siècle Gothic.  Manfred, the corrupted villain, is not entirely unsympathetic, given he seems to be driven to his evil deeds by good intentions and often tries to repent, only to be driven back to his purpose by anger, embarrassment, and obsession.  Women, of course, are the principal victims; given they are selfless paragons of virtue, we can’t lavish too much interest on them.  Strangely, for a Gothic progenitor there is actually very little here in the way of the supernatural, and no ghosts, vampires, demons, or zombies.  However, some very uncanny things happen, so it cannot be explained away as a female Gothic (at least if read at face-value).  

The style of writing isn’t easy, but considering it is over two hundred years old, I don’t begrudge it that difficulty.  There is no dialogue in the way we would now recognize it.  Still, once one gets used to the rhythms of Walpole’s writing, it is quite a jaunty tale.  I wouldn’t ask anyone to read it who wasn’t interested in either the Gothic or the 18th century, as it is no truly timeless masterpiece of human experience, but it was much better than I had been led to believe.