Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Late Victorian Gothic Tales

It's a great idea to anthologise the late Victorian Gothic. This, after all, is the Gothic everyone knows today, the Gothic of Dracula and the Mummy as opposed to the original Gothic of Otranto and Vathek. Inevitably, though, you are going to end up with a mixed bag.

The first story, for example, is 'Dionea' by Vernon Lee (Violet Paget). 'Dionea' is very much in the neo-baroque mode of Walpole and Mrs Radcliffe. It is nevertheless very effective. 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime' on the other hand is a spoof, clever enough but not especially funny and I'm afraid I long since tired of Wilde's juvenile precocity.  'Sir Edward Orme' by Henry James is beautifully written but not in any way disturbing. We then come to Kipling's 'The Mark of the Beast' which is both exquisitely written and profoundly disturbing. 'The Dak Bungalow at Dakor', by Kipling's fellow Raj writer Mrs Croker, is sludge not worth anthologising.

Then we have two stories by Conan Doyle at the height of his Sherlock Holmes success - 'Lot No 249', a mummy story, perhaps even the first mummy story, in which the characterisation of the mummy's owner is far more creepy than the mummy itself, and 'The Case of Lady Sannox', which so affected me that I am currently writing a direct follow-up for my own amusement. The thing with 'Lady Sannox' is Doyle's extreme contempt for the titular woman. Is this misogyny or puritanism? The mutilation inflicted on her reminded me strongly of Freud and Fliess's treatment of Emma Eckstein's nose, which has always seemed to me to be more about their sexual fetishes than hers.

Grant Allen's 'Pallinghurst Barrow' has a powerful theme but is poorly written. Two brief contes cruelles by Jean Lorrain have the opposite problem, strong and effective writing about nothing very much. 'The Great God Pan' by Arthur Machen is really a novella, an important distinction in that the fractured narrative he uses would not be practicable in a short story. It is one of Machen's better known works and the first I have read. I like it very much. I especially enjoy the way the horror is suggested and then cut away from, leaving it to the reader's worst imaginings. This of course is the technique later used to great effect by Val Lewton in his 1942 movie Cat People.

The final offering, M P Shiel's 'Viala', is another novella first published, like 'Pan', in The Bodley Head's notorious Keynotes series. Shiel is another pioneer of the macabre who I have heard about but never previously read. He is another I will have to pursue further, albeit he is totally different to Machen. Where Machen goes for subtlety and suggestion, Shiel is anything but. He is so wild and extravagant that often his language cannot keep up. His Viala is the Castle of Otranto remodelled by Vathek and transplanted to the Far North. Significantly for me, as a researcher into William Hope Hodgson, I'm pretty sure I now know where the idea of The House on the Borderland came from. As Roger Luckhurst notes in his introduction, 'Viala' is 'genuinely unhinged' - and that, it turns out, is by no means a bad thing.

To end with the Introduction... It will not be news to regular visitors to this blog, that I tend not to be a fan of the form in general. I have just bought a collection of ghost stories with an introduction of no more than 500 feeble words by some non-entity that made me want to get my money back. In this case, however, the Introduction and Notes are essential and add hugely to the experience of reading the book. Luckhurst knows whereof he speaks and can be trusted as a source for others. Well done to him and to Oxford World's Classics for producing this gem.

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