Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Gothic Book Club?

I have been thinking for a while that what I really want to do is read more gothic novels. Two things have convinced me that I really must approach this more seriously. Firstly, there was the engaging piece in the Guardian, How to tell you're reading a gothic novel – in pictures. And then, just the other day, I was at the launch of issue 3 of The Green Book, an Irish journal on the gothic and macabre.

What I am thinking of doing is picking books and setting myself two months to read each one (two months being a long time, but I am a slow reader and I also have other reading commitments). Some other people have expressed interest in this project so if there are the numbers I will try and turn it into some kind of book club. I may not be able to start this until the autumn, as the immediate future sees me consumed by the horrors of having to find a new place to live and also my Important Project, plus July is a busy time in work and I am going away for some of August etc. etc.

I have put some thought into compiling a list of books to read. There are a lot of gothic novels, but some of them are more key than others. I think the 12 books below constitute a reasonable enough A-list of the gothic over a period of more than a hundred years, presenting the work of authors from a reasonably wide spread of countries.

Horace Walpole The Castle of Otranto (1764) - This is usually credited with being the first gothic novel, though there are of course some earlier candidates. The book caused a sensation on its first appearance.

Ann Radcliffe The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) - Mrs Radcliffe was a highly successful imitator of Mr Walpole's work.

Matthew Lewis The Monk (1796) - Behind the pious face of the eponymous monk lurks the soul of a man who has given himself over to every kind of depraved vice.

Jan Potocki The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (AKA The Saragossa Manuscript) (1815) - The Polish Count Potocki's narrative presents a series of nested and interlinked stories supposedly told to the main narrator or read by him as he travels through the Sierra Morena mountains en route to Madrid.

E.T.A. Hoffman The Devil’s Elixirs (1815) - I do not know too much about this but Hoffman is an important figure in the development of the gothic (or so I have read). The novel apparently bears some similarities to The Monk.

Mary Shelley Frankenstein (1818) - This was the product of the famous night in the Villa Diodati where Shelley, Lord Byron, her future husband and others competed to produce the most original and terrifying horror story.

Charles Maturin Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) - Melmoth has sold his soul to the Devil in return for an unnaturally long life, but he can save himself from damnation if he finds someone to take on the bargain. He travels the world on an increasingly desperate quest for someone who will trade life for salvation.

James Hogg The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) - This strange novel of madness and demonic possession concerns a Scottish gentleman convinced that as one of the Elect he is predestined for salvation, regardless of whatever acts of depravity he might commit.

Edgar Allan Poe [an anthology of short stories] (1832- 1849) - There are lots of anthologies of Poe stories and it would probably be difficult to get everyone in a book club reading the same one, but anything featuring the likes of "Ligeia", "William Wilson", "The Masque of the Red Death", "A Cask of Amontillado", "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Premature Burial" etc. would do the job.

Emily Bronte Wuthering Heights (1847) - The demonic yet charismatic Heathcliff and the terrible revenge he works on those he feels have wronged him make for one of the greatest of gothic narratives.

J. Sheridan Le Fanu In A Glass Darkly (1872) - This short story collection is most famous for the endlessly fascinating vampire story "Carmilla", but it also includes other noteworthy tales of the macabre, including one that would be of particular interest to anyone familiar with the city of Dublin. [An alternative to this would be Le Fanu's novel Uncle Silas (1864), the dark tale of a teenage heiress on whose fortune various sinister figures have nefarious designs]

Robert Louis Stevenson Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1886) - There is probably no one in the world who does not know what is going on here, but try reading it while imagining yourself a late Victorian picking up the book for the first time, aghast at the thought of what could link the apparently saintly Dr Jekyll with the sinister and bestial Mr Hyde.

H. Rider Haggard She (1887) - In a remote and unexplored corner of Africa, a beautiful and immortal but indescribably cruel sorceress rules over the ruins of a lost civilisation and waits.

In picking the above I have been guided by my own sense of what would constitute a representative tour through the gothic canon. I am open to suggestions as to books that could be added or subtracted from the list, but in the mode of a truly obsessive gothic antihero I must insist on making the final decision myself.

The one truly key gothic novel I have left off the above list is Vathek (1786), by William Beckford. Beckford is a fascinating figure and the book was influential and important in the history of the form, but it is also a not particularly impressive work to modern readers.

I suspect that many people with a passing interest in the gothic or in English literature will have read some of the above books already. I have read several, some of them quite recently. But I think for a proper exploration of the gothic we should be willing to read them again, or at least skim the plot summary on their Wikipedia page.

Those 12 books would keep me (and anyone joining me) going for two years. Perhaps by then we would be sick of the fetid swamp of the gothic, or perhaps we would be desperate for more. One possibility would be to read (or re-read) Jane Austen's gothic parody Northanger Abbey and then approach the Seven Horrid Novels mentioned by name in it, before moving on to later gothic or gothic-tinged novels like Great Expectations, Dracula, À Rebours, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, Titus Groan, and so on. But these would be questions for the future.


The Nightmare

The Sleep of Reason brings produces monsters

The Green Book


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a good plan. I would just say three things:

1) I think you have to be pretty dirigiste about the Poe stories. I read a Complete Poe Stories anthology a few years back and was sufficiently appalled by the bad ones (and there are many) that my enjoyment of the good ones (and there are several) was diminished.

2) I think you do have to take Northanger Abbey as a gateway from the Gothic to the mainstream.

3) What about The Mummy? Not Gothic enough, perhaps, but surely drawing water from the same well.

ian said...

1. I think what I would do with Poe is throw out a list of stories I consider key (either through having read them years ago or having read about them) and encourage people to read an anthology that contains as many of them as possible. There are a good few Poe stories that to me would not be relevant to this project (e.g. the detective stories), aside from whether they are good or bad, and I reckon readers would have to use their own discretion as to whether a particular story was worth reading or not.

2. Roger roger.

3. I do not know the Mummy. From looking at Wikipedia I see there is a book called The Mummy! by Jane Loudon from 1827, is that the one you mean?

ian said...

One other book I may add to that list is Fyodor Dosoyevsky's The Double (1846), in which a government clerk in St. Petersburg finds himself faced with a new friend/rival who looks exactly like him except that he is charming and confident. I think my list does not have quite enough books about doppelgängers and people who have been split in two.

ian said...

I am starting to lean towards "Uncle Silas" rather than "In A Glass Darkly".