Hail to the King!

Towards the end of last year, I wrote a long post about the work of Stephen King. I had read nothing but King for a few weeks prior to writing that, and so I decided to give him a break for a while. He has been showing up in the news recently due to his hilarious behaviour on twitter and for the record breaking new trailer for It, and so I decided to indulge myself with a smattering of his marvelous brand of trashy horror fiction.

it stephen kingIt – 1986

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time. I remember being thoroughly creeped out by the video box of the 1990 movie version when I was a kid but being a little disappointed when I actually got to sit down and watch It. With the new movie coming out in September, I decided that I had better read the book now so that I can act cool and knowledgeable to anyone who mentions it to me in the coming months.

In some ways, It is a brilliant novel. The characters are great, the scary bits are very scary, and the transitions between past and present are really well executed. I also have personal reasons for enjoying the story of a gang of losers getting into rock fights with bullies, building hideouts in the woods, and breaking into abandoned houses. I was a little older than the characters in the book when I went a very similar, although significantly less supernatural, set of adventures myself.

Several scenes in the book involve the kids breaking into an abandoned house only to meet It in different ghoulish forms. When I was 18, my friends and I broke into an abandoned house and went rummaging through the cellar. When we were down there, we saw a strange light glimmering on the wall by the stairs. This was rather frightening as it was well after dark, and that set of stairs was our only escape route. We grabbed what we could from the debris on the ground (a stick, a rope, a rusty grill…) and prepared to do battle with whatever it was that was coming down the stairs.

We waited in silence for several minutes, but nothing moved and the light eventually went away. Afterwards, as we sat on some chairs that we had fashioned from old breezeblocks, we came up with a story to explain the peculiar glare. It had been the ghost of the former resident of the house, an old woman who was none too pleased with our presence in her home. We wrote a song about it that began:

In the hoose (sic), the times we had.
Our antiques (sic) made the Granny mad.
Her toilet, it was brown and crappy;
in the bin, her vaginal nappy.

shitty toilet
Her toilet was indeed both brown and crappy.

Anyways, there are several genuinely creepy scenes and ideas in here, but It is a very long book, and in truth, it’s a little incohesive. By 1986, Stephen King was the most popular novelist in the world. He could have written complete rubbish, had it published and sold a million copies. I’m not saying that this is rubbish, but I reckon it could have done with a bit of editing. Some bits aren’t really unnecessary to the lengthy plot, and some crucial plot elements (It‘s origin, the Turtle, how some adults can see Pennywise) are given scant explanation. This doesn’t detract too much from the book however; when a novel’s opening scene depicts a clown dragging a small child into a sewer to eat him, one aught to adjust their expectations accordingly. Don’t question the plot’s coherence; just turn your brain off and enjoy the trashy horror goodness.

When reviewing an extremely popular work, I try not to repeat information or ideas that will be available from thousands of other blogs and websites, but I will say that the infamous sex scene towards the end of this novel was damn weird.

I tried to rewatch the old movie version right after finishing the novel, but it’s very long and aside from Tim Curry, the acting is awful. I lasted about 20 minutes before watching a best-bits compilation on youtube. I will definitely be going to see the new version when it comes out.

 

cycle of the werewolf stephen kingCycle of the Werewolf – 1983

This story is packaged as an illustrated novel, but in reality, it’s shorter than some of King’s short stories. It’s about a werewolf on the loose in a small town. There’s nothing in here that you wouldn’t expect from the title and cover of the book. It’s not an unpleasant read, but I don’t think anyone would say that this is King at his finest. I read it on my commute to work one day.

 

carrie stephen kingCarrie – 1974

 King’s first novel, Carrie, is also one of his best. I started it one morning last week and had finished it by that afternoon. Obviously, this is a very popular work, one that has spawned 3-4 movie versions, and I was familiar with the plot before reading it, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely.

This is nowhere near as ambitious as a novel like It, but I reckon Carrie is actually the better book. The reader quickly comes to understand Carrie’s plight and to lust for her revenge, but this book also encourages its readers to consider how they treat the Carries in their own lives. It’s a simple formula, but it’s entertaining and effective.

 

I love Stephen King, but I’ll probably leave him alone for another few months. He’ll doubtlessly appear on this blog again. Oh, and sorry for the recent lack of posts; there should be a few new ones popping up fairly soon.

Hail to the King!

Year in Review: 2016

2016 is very nearly over, and although it was a tremendously shit year in a lot of ways, it was a pretty good year for this blog. Not only did the site’s traffic increase to 4 times what it was in 2015, I also believe that my content has improved in quality. For much of the first year of the blog, I was reviewing books that I had read a long time ago. At this stage, I’m reviewing books right after reading them, and the more I read on these topics, the more links I have been able to draw. Not every post on here is groundbreaking, but there have been a few this year that I am quite proud of. Here’s my top-10 list for 2016:

bulwer-green-skull

 


10. The Haunters and the Haunted

A look at the different versions of Bulwer Lytton’s classic ghost story. This post features Colin Wilson getting pwned.

 

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9. The Books of Whitley Strieber
(Communion, Transformation)
I want to bully this guy so much.

 

 

witchcraft

 


8. Seabrook’s Witchcraft

Willie Seabrook: explorer, sceptic, sorceror and sex-pervert. My hero.

 

 

buk

 

 


7. Matthew Hopkins’ Discovery of Witches

The coolest physical book in my collection

 

 

dictionaries-of-witchcraft-and-demonology

 

 

6. Dictionary of Demonology/Dictionary of Witchcraft
The biggest disappointment of 2016

 

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5. The Fiery Angel
A curious, Russian occult novel that turned out to be based on a true story.

 

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4. Black Magic Grimoires
An in-depth look at some of the most infamous works of black magic.

 

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3. Ludovico Maria Sinistrari (Part 1, Part 2)
A weird Friar who believed in randy fairies and gander-neck appendages that grew from between the legs of horny women.

 

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2. Varney the Vampire
You won’t find many reviews of this book that are as thorough as this one.

 

 

bookwith angel

 

and finally… 1. Michelle Remembers
My post of the year without doubt. An on-site investigation into the diabolic, incestuous rape fantasies of a masochistic idiot and sex fiend.

 

 

 

I want to stress that this is a list of the best posts from this blog in 2016. (It most certainly does not reflect the 10 best books that I read in 2016!) I hope that Nocturnal Revelries has been insightful and entertaining to the people who have found themselves reading through it over the last year. I have really enjoyed reading and writing for this blog, and I intend to keep the content coming during 2017. That being said, my wife and I are expecting our first baby in March, and I imagine that she’s going to leave me with significantly less time to spend reading.

Thanks for all of the support. Read books, drink tea, skip mass and have a good new year!

(Oh, and just in case you didn’t know, I have facebook, twitter and tumblr pages set up so that you can keep track of what’s happening on the blog even if you don’t have a wordpress account.)

Year in Review: 2016

Dracula vs Hitler

thebargainfrontcoverThe Bargain – John Ruddy
Knightsbridge – 1990
Although it’s disguised as a novel, Jon Ruddy’s The Bargain is likely the most historically accurate account of the sinister proceedings that brought an end to the second world war that has ever been published. This is the true story of how Count Dracula used an army of vampire whores to bring and end to Third Reich.

It took me approximately one minute to order a copy of this book after seeing an image of its cover online. I don’t regret my purchase. The cover is phenomenal, and the book itself is actually fairly enjoyable. There’s lots of sex, swearing and gore, and it really wouldn’t be fair to expect anything more from a book with that cover. To use Ann Radcliffe‘s distinction, this book is very much a horror novel rather than a tale of terror, and sometimes some straight forward horror is just what I need.
thebargainbackcover
Dracula never died, but he got really annoyed when Hitler invaded Romania, so he  made a bunch of vampire prostitutes and got them to fuck/infect/kill German soldiers. This is very much a Dracula versus Hitler story, and while that is obviously super cool, I was hoping that it would be more of a Dracula and Hitler (up a tree) story. I feel like that these boys would probably like each other, and instead of reading about their rivalry, I’d prefer to see them going out for a beer together. Holy shit, imagine how entertaining it would be if Dracula and Hitler had a weekly podcast where they just shared their stories and opinions. I mean, it would be evil as fuck, but I would definitely listen to it.

I had a fairly similar complaint when I read Dennis Wheatley’s They Used Dark Forces.  That book is about Hitler and black magic, but the dark forces in question are largely being used against Hitler. If I’m reading a novel about Hitler, I want him to be the main bad guy. I want to read allegations of him being a vampire or a black magician. I want a book that explains how Adolf Hitler would drink the blood of a virgin, then sprout wings and fly into the night sky to pay homage to Lucifer, his lord and master. If anyone knows if such a book exists, please let me know!

This book was still pretty sweet though. Read it.

Dracula vs Hitler

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

elizabethgaskell
Tales of Mystery and the Macabre – Elizabeth Gaskell
Wordsworth Books – 2008
Long ago, I got a goodreads recommendation for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales collection published by Penguin. In April 2013, I ordered a copy. It never arrived. Later that year, when I went home for Christmas, I found a short story collection by Gaskell in the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural series. This collection was called Tales of Mystery and the Macabre. It was nice and cheap, and I presumed it would be the same as the book that I had previously ordered, so I bought it. It lay on the shelf for nearly 3 years.

I started reading Gaskell in September. I checked to see if this edition contained the same stories as the Penguin edition. The Ghost in the Garden Room goes by a different title; it’s The Crooked Branch in the Penguin edition, but they’re the same story. Apart from that, these texts are the same. The Penguin edition may well have notes and a better introduction, but I doubt those would make this book any more enjoyable.

The stories are not mysterious, and only a few of them are remotely spooky. They’re mostly about innocent young women and mistaken cases of identity. Within a week, I had read all but two of the tales, but then I started working in a factory and binging on Stephen King, and I lost all interest in Gaskell. I forced myself to go back and finish it last week, and I’m glad I did. The last story I read, The Ghost in the Garden Room, is surprisingly miserable; it was great, especially the ending. The rest of the stories range from decent (Lois the Witch and The Old Nurse’s Story) to stupidly shit (Curious, if True). I started on Gaskell right after I finished reading Varney the Vampire, another book in the Wordsworth series, and that may have had something to do with how little I enjoyed this one. My patience threshold for Victorian fiction seems to be about 1000 pages.

Overall, Gaskell’s Gothic tales are not absolutely horrible to read, but this was not a book that I ever looked forward to opening. Also, the cover is fucking stupid. I’ve given out about the covers for this series several times before, but dear Christ this one is ridiculous. There’s no mention of planets or standing stones in any of these stories, and that cover makes this book look better than it is. The image needs to be replaced for the next edition, and out of the goodness of my heart,  I have designed for a cover that far better suits the content of his book:

better-coverIf anyone working for Wordsworth sees this, please spare the niceties and just send a cheque. Thanks.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales of Mystery and the Macabre

The Divine Rite of King

When I as a kid, my parents would sometimes take me to the videoshop after mass on a Sunday and we’d rent two cassettes: a cartoon for the kids and a movie for my parents. As I got a little older, I found myself drawn to the wall over by the sales counter. This was where the horror films were stacked. I distinctly remember being fascinated by the video boxes of Return of the Living Dead III, Ghoulies, and The Howling II. There was one similarity shared by several of the other boxes; it was a man’s name, Stephen King. I remember the mildly titillating feeling of dread that came from looking at the boxes of Children of the Corn, Tommyknockers, It and Graveyard Shift. The covers made these movies look horribly disturbing. I mean, these looked like the kind of films that were supposed to make you mentally sick if you watched them. But underneath my revulsion there was an intense curiosity. I wanted to see those films badly.

My parents had seen a few of the better movies that had been made from King’s work. I remembering pestering them for every plot detail of the Shining  and Misery.  It was probably soon after that that my mam allowed me to read The Moving Finger, a short story from Nightmares and Dreamscapes. It was a bit like the Goosebumps books that I absolutely adored at the time, but this was for grownups. I thought Stephen King was super cool.

I’m the eldest of my siblings, and my parents were a bit stricter with me than they were with my sisters. When one of my teachers told my parents that students should spend 3 hours studying every day, my mam took that to heart. I was never locked in  room or anything, but I was expected to spend several hours a day on my schoolwork. It wasn’t worth fighting over, so I just stayed in the front room of our house by myself, pretending to study for a few hours every day. I can’t remember/don’t want to admit how I spent all of those hours, but there was a bookshelf in that room, and sometimes reading novels seemed like a better idea than reading textbooks. There were only four books on that shelf that looked remotely appealing, and I got through all of them. ‘What books were they?’, I hear you say. They were Roddy Doyle’s excellent Barrytown Trilogy and Bag of Bones by Stephen King.

bagofbonesBag of Bones (1998)
I read this about 15 years ago and can’t remember much about it. I believe I enjoyed it at the time. Anything beat studying.

theshiningThe Shining (1977)
I read this one a little over 5 years ago, and I absolutely loved it. At one point, I actually had to put the book down to take a breather and calm myself (I believe it was right after Danny went into room 237). I had seen Kubrick’s film several times before reading the book, and I reckon it’s better to do the film/book combo in that order.

nightmaresanddreamscapesNightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)
While my first experience with this short story collection was probably 20 years ago, I only got around to reading it cover to cover in 2014. (Well, I’ve never technically read it cover to cover to be honest; I read it in my old office job from a pdf file saved in my google drive). Some stories were great. My favourites were Popsy, Crouch End (a pastiche of Lovecraft), and Night Flier, the movie version of which is laughably bad. Dedication is weird and gross but definitely worth a read. I enjoyed this book, but I don’t think it was quite as good as King’s earlier short story collections.

nightshiftNight Shift (1978)
In October, I took a seasonal job in a powder factory. The work required a lot of standing still, and I was allowed to do it with headphones in. I decided to download some audiobooks to get me through the long dusty days, but I was fairly disappointed in the selection offered by illegal fire-sharing sites. Also, choosing the right audiobook to listen to at work is tricky; the book needs to be interesting enough to keep your mind occupied, but it also has to be light enough that you don’t have to take notes to keep up with the plot. My problems were all solved when I found a big torrent of Stephen King’s audiobooks. His writing is very straightforward, and it takes barely any effort to soak it in. Also, his short stories are about vampires, aliens, mutant rats, and men that turn into slime. If that doesn’t sound enticing to you, get the fuck off my blog and go listen to your Coldplay cds, you stupid fucking barrel of shit.
This is the first collection of short fiction that King published, and some of the stories are  great. Children of the Corn is maybe my favourite. The written text is so much better than the utterly shit movie version that came out in 1984. Graveyard Shift and The Mangler were both great too, but I haven’t watched their movie adaptations. One for the road and Jerusalem’s Lot both expand on the material from Salem’s Lot (reviewed below), and Night Surf is a brief glance at the idea that would become The Stand (also reviewed below). Not everything in here is brilliant, but I really like the fact that King is willing to take any silly idea that comes into his head and turn it into a story. The man has a brilliant imagination.

skeletoncrewSkeleton Crew (1985)
I think I stole a copy of this book from my Granddad’s house when I was 21. I remember taking it to France with me and reading most of The Mist on a plane. Frank Darabont’s version of the Mist is one of my favourite movies and one of the few times that I think a film improved on the book. I read another few stories after that, but lost the book soon thereafter. I started going through the remaining tales as soon as I finished Night Shift last month, and this one picks up right where that one left off.
Survivor Type is fantastic. I laughed heartily as I listened to it. I guessed what was going to happen only a little bit into the story, but I didn’t think King would have the guts to write a story like that. I was wrong. Stephen King definitely has the guts to write a story like that. This collection was thoroughly enjoyable.

4pastFour Past Midnight (1990)
I had found that Stephen King’s fiction was the perfect way to pass the time in work, but I had run out of short story collections. I read that Four Past Midnight was a collection of novellas, but I had never actually seen a physical copy of the book before I started listening to it.  It turns out that some of these “novellas” are longer than some of King’s most celebrated novels. Why were they released in a collection rather than individually? I reckon it was something to do with the fact they’re not exactly his most brilliant work.

The Langoliers
This is a weird one. It’s about a plane that flies into another dimension. The audiobook version is narrated by Willem Dafoe, and I really enjoyed it, but in retrospect, it doesn’t make much sense at all.
Secret Window, Secret Garden
This, in my opinion, was the worst story in this collection. The twist ending is apparent from the very beginning.
The Library Policeman
This was my favourite. It’s weird as fuck.
“Come with me, Ssson. I’m the Library Polissse Man”
The Sun Dog
A boy’s camera offers a glimpse into another reality. It’s an interesting concept I guess, entertaining enough.

I enjoyed Four Past Midnight, but I really doubt anyone would ever have heard of it if it wasn’t written by Mr. King. It would not be a good starting point for anyone interested in sampling his works.

salemslotSalem’s Lot (1975)
About 8 years ago, I stayed up late two nights in a row to watch the 1979 movie version of Salem’s Lot. I was unimpressed. I decided to give the book a chance right after finishing Four Past Midnight. I’m really glad that I did; it’s a very entertaining vampire story set in modern America. I’d strongly recommend that you read it if you haven’t.

thestandThe Stand: Complete and Uncut (1990)
By the time I started on the Stand, I had read/listened to nothing other than Stephen King books for almost two months. I’ll be honest, that was probably a bad idea. At 1153 pages, the uncut version of the Stand is King’s longest book. I never got bored when I was reading it; it is very entertaining, but towards the end, I started to really look forward to reading other books.

King takes his time setting the story up, but it all winds down fairly quickly. There’s three books in the stand. The first ends the world with a super plague, the second details how the two factions of survivors organize themselves, and the final book describes the conflict (or lack thereof) between the two groups. The concept is cool, but the pacing is silly. Given the overall plot of the book, the section on the plague wiping out most of humanity is too long. For the first few hundred pages, the Stand is a fairly straightforward disaster novel that describes a calamity that is in no way unrealistic. Then, after 99.6% of human beings have been wiped out, we find out that the survivors have been left with mild telepathic abilities, and the book quickly turns into a religious parable about the forces of good and evil. It’s already already very, very long, but I felt a bit cheated when the conflict that the previous 1100 pages had been leading to was literally prevented by the hand of God. I mean, come on Stephen; you could have got another 5000+ pages if the two sides had actually gone to war! I wouldn’t be surprised if the Stand had originally been even more epic in its scope and that King only realized that he wouldn’t be able all fit everything into one book after he had already written 700 pages. He has acknowledged that The Lord of the Rings was an inspiration for this work, but King’s fellowship only sets out for their Mordor (Las Vegas) in the third book of the Stand. If he had really used Tolkien’s trilogy as a model, the Stand would probably have lasted 5000-6000 pages.

The religious undertones of the book also irked me a little. I thought Randall Flag was fucking cool, and I definitely would have joined his side. Also, while several of King’s works feature a “Magical Negro”, Mother Abigail serves as a particularly cringeworthy example of this trope. King is definitely not a racist, but some of his writing depicts a slightly dated worldview.

All that being said, the Stand is filled with cool characters and awesome scenes, and I enjoyed reading it. Stephen King has acknowledged that he considers his work to be trash (good trash specifically), and I, for one, am not above reading trash. I fucking love trash, and I loved Trash.

I’ve enjoyed every Stephen King book that I’ve read, but right now, I am looking forward to reading something else. I didn’t know if I was going to review his books on this blog when I started binging on him in October, but the more that I think about it, the more I think that he deserves to be here. If you like horror, you’ve already read this guy. His books are spooky, gross, and seriously entertaining. I’m going to give it a few months, but I’ll definitely be reading more Stephen King in the future. Aside from his fiction, he also seems like a cool guy; he hates Donald Trump and he’s into AC/DC.

kingStephen King, I salute you!

The Divine Rite of King

Gutted

bulwer-green-skull
The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain – Lord Lytton 
Originally published – 1859

A few years ago, I read about the books of Edward Bulwer Lytton in Colin Wilson’s The Occult. Discovering that this Lytton lad was supposed to be friends with Eliphas Levi and that his books were about wizards, ghosts, and secret societies, I quickly put him on my to-read list. A few months after doing so, I saw his name in Nicholas Goodrick Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism. Combining what I already knew about Lytton with the fact that one of his works had apparently inspired a bizarre conspiracy theory about subterranean, black magic Nazis, I knew that I had to make acquiring his books a priority.

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The four texts that Wilson specifically named were Zanoni,  A Strange Story, The Coming Race, and The Haunted and the Haunters. I found audiobook versions of the latter two on librivox, downloaded them and stuck them on my phone. The mp3 of The Haunted and The Haunters was only an hour and 10 minutes long, and I listened to it at work the other day.

It was a little disappointing to be honest. A lad hears about a haunted house and decides to spend the night there. He sees some ghosts, and a few days later he discovers a secret room containing a peculiar device that essentially functions as a ghost machine. He breaks the ghost machine, and then everyone lives happily ever after.

This is a ghost story, but it’s not remotely spooky. During the most climactic scenes, the narrator makes a point of telling the reader that he is not afraid, and it’s very hard to feel scared for a person who seems to understand the situation better than you. The chap comes across as a know-it-all wanker to be honest; I’d take a terrified Jamesian protagonist over this gobshite any day.

Lytton’s use of fiction to present his ideas about the supernatural may have been novel at the time this was published, but I found it rather trite. He goes over the old “nothing is really supernatural because supernatural means impossible and nothing is impossible” argument. Just because science can’t yet explain ghosts, ESP, clairvoyance and all that good stuff, there’s no reason to believe that it won’t some day be able to. This is a fair point to make, but it doesn’t have much bearing on whether or not these things actually exist.

The story comes to a very abrupt end. After enduring the night in the house, the lads find a chest of drawers in a secret room. In this chest is a portrait of another lad who the narrator seems to have seen before and a weird, home-made, magic compass that has been cursed. Once this strange device is destroyed, everything is grand. That’s it. End of story.

Fairly shit, all things considered.

the-endIs that really the end though?

This story was originally published as “The Haunted and the Haunters; or, The House and the Brain” in the July-December 1859 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine. I find it quite strange that an original publication would feature two titles. Subsequent appearances of the tale have often been published under one title or the other.  I have read that the “House and Brain” title usually denotes an abridged version of the story, but I have read the exact same thing about the “Haunter and Haunted” title. Perhaps the different titles were once used to denote the different versions of the story, but at this stage, neither title can be trusted to signify the abridgment.

haunted-house-brainMy copy of the text has both titles, but it’s the abridged version.

If you have any sense and want to make sure that you’re reading the full version, the last paragraph of the original version of the story starts with the phrase;
“So ends this strange story, which I ask no one to believe.”

The first line of the final paragraph in the SHITTY-BUM abridged version reads;
We found no more. Mr. J—— burnt the tablet and its anathema.
If there is one thing that I simply can not abide, it’s an abridged book. If this is the ending of the tale you are reading, look elsewhere for satisfaction!

The abridgment absolutely guts the story. The haunting in the original features a creepier ghost, a slightly more gruesome description of the death of the narrator’s dog, several other minor edits, and most importantly: a tense confrontation between the narrator and the wizard responsible for bewitching the house. The complete version is by no means a brilliant piece of literature, but it is at least somewhat coherent, and it’s far more enjoyable than the shortened piece of drek. Imagine reading a version of the Shining in which all references to Jack Torrence’s family have been cut out and you’ll get a sense of the shitness of the abridged version of this tale.

Luckily, the unabridged version is widely available on the web (It’s on page 244 of the edition of Blackwood’s Magazine that I’ve already linked to.). An article from the July 1938 edition of the Theosophical Forum suggests that Bulwer cut parts out of this tale to use in his novel, A Strange Story.  That novel was published in 1862, three years after The Haunted and the Haunters. I haven’t read A Strange Story yet, and it may be a while before I get around to it, but I’ll read over Haunted/Haunters again when I do to see how the ideas were transferred between the two.

As I have already mentioned, I first heard about Lytton in Colin Wilson’s The Occult. I decided to read back over the relevant passages in that book to see if there was anything pertaining to this particular story. Wilson quotes the entire description of the curious portrait that is found near the cursed saucer to give an example of what he thinks a black magician should look like. He then says, “And when he later added a new ending to the story, Lytton extended this sketch into a full-length portrait of a man who seems to be a combination of the Wandering Jew and the Count de Saint-Germain.” Colin Wilson, author extraordinaire and expert on the occult, seems to have believed that the original version of this story was the short version. Wilson also lists Lytton’s first name as Henry in the index to the book when his name was actually Edward (His elder brother was named Henry.) Colin Wilson, it seems, was not very thorough in his research.

rubbishGood riddance to this pile of unlettered garbage.

 

 

Gutted

Mrs. Radcliffe’s Novels

ann-radcliffe-novels

I don’t have much to say on these books that hasn’t been said before. Ann Radcliffe didn’t invent the Gothic novel, but she drastically improved it. Books like Castle of Otranto and Vathek are fun, but they’re both quite silly. Radcliffe’s novels came a few decades later, and while they’re still fairly silly, they contain interesting characters and plausible stories.

Radcliffe is famous for making the literary distinction between terror and horror. Terror, according to Radcliffe, is the fear caused by uncertainty; it’s the not knowing what’s making the slithering noises in your bedroom wardrobe. Horror is the climactic reaction to actually seeing the warty green skin and blood soaked fangs of the monster as it lunges towards you. Radcliffe claimed that terror was a far more effective method of thrilling an audience, and she masterfully weaves her tales so that they keep both her readers and characters guessing until the very end.

Her books contain all the secret passages, mysterious chambers, fiendish villains and innocent virgins that you’d expect, but unlike their Gothic predecessors, the plots of her books are not driven by supernatural forces. The strange muffled noises and shadows darting hither and thither are all eventually explained as the stories unfold. The threat of horror is never realized, but it is this very threat that creates the sense of terror that runs through these books. Radcliffe does suspense exceedingly well.

The Italian – Ann Radcliffe
Wordsworth – 2011 (Originally published 1797)
I read The Italian two weeks ago. It came out just a year after Lewis’s The Monk, and one could draw comparisons to the relationship between these two books and the relationship between The Castle of Otranto and The Old English Baron. While both books contain evil monks and the Inquistion, The Italian is more a response to The Monk than a rewrite, and it is definitely better book than the Old English Baron.

My copy is another Wordsworth Tales of Mystery and the Supernatural edition (I fucking love these books!), but I took most of this one in from the librivox audio version. The Librivox version is based on the first edition of the book (containing 33 chapters), but the Wordsworth version is the second edition (34 chapters). For the second edition, Radcliffe rewrote parts to make it seem that Ellena’s sweet singing voice was more attractive to Vivaldi than her body. The 5th chapter of second edition, in which Vivaldi visits Bianchi’s corpse, is also a new addition. If you only own the first edition and want to read this 3 page addition, you can do so here. There may be other very minor differences, but I got through the book going back and forth between the two editions, and it didn’t cause any confusion.

While I agree that terror can be far more effective than horror, I don’t think that horror needs to be abandoned completely. I certainly enjoyed this book, but I preferred the Monk. Radcliffe’s book doesn’t need the supernatural to make it work, but it does need the introduction of a new character at a very late stage in the plot, definitely a bit of a Deus Ex Machina. It is definitely worth a read though. Schedoni is a real cool guy.

The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe
Oxford – 1998 (Originally published 1794)
The Mysteries of Udolpho is Radcliffe’s most famous book. I read it 3 years ago, but I remember really enjoying it. I had started a new job a few months previous, and I was starting to realize that I could get away with spending most of the day reading online. The night before, I would email myself a pdf file of the book I wanted to read, renaming it to something like “contract-agreement.pdf” so that the boss wouldn’t be able to give me any grief if he checked my browsing history. I had begun with a few short stories, and I only started on this one to see if I could get away with it. It’s more than 600 pages, and I finished it in a week. (I worked in that office for another year, and I managed to read a further 66 books at work in that time.) Reading Udolpho, you can see where writers like Lewis, De Sade and Le Fanu (especially in Uncle Silas) got many of their ideas. I really liked this book.

Apparently Jane Austen did too. Her novel Northanger Abbey is referred to as a parody of Radcliffe’s works. It’s the tale of 17 year old Catherine, an avid Radcliffe fan. Catherine goes through life imagining herself the heroine of one of Radcliffe’s novels. I waited until after I had read The Italian to read this one, but it really only makes direct reference to Udolpho.

norrthanger-abbey
Northanger Abbey – Jane Austen
Penguin – 1994 (First published 1817)
I wasn’t expecting much from this, and to tell the truth, I didn’t get much either. It’s a cute little romance that has stuff to say on femininity and feminism, but I’ll let you look elsewhere for that. My favourite parts were undoubtedly the sections where the protagonist is imagining that she’s the character in one of the books she has been reading. I also listened to two audiobook collections of Stephen King’s short stories last week, and I found that I was becoming suspicious of nearly everything around me. I therefore found Catherine’s plight very relatable.

The real reason I wanted to read this book was its connection to Montague Summers. At an early stage in the novel, Catherine’s friend promises that she will give her a small collection of books. Those books are:

Castle of Wolfenbach,
Clermont,
Mysterious Warnings,
Necromancer of the Black Forest,
Midnight Bell,
Orphan of the Rhine,
Horrid Mysteries

For years it was presumed that Austen had made these titles up herself, but Montague Summers, the absolute legend, actually rummaged through libraries until he found copies of each text. They have all been republished, and I intend to buy, read and review copies as soon as I am a wealthy man.

To conclude, Ann Radcliffe was very cool. Her books, though imperfect, were hugely influential and remain thoroughly enjoyable. They’d be perfect for taking on a lazy holiday, and I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for her other novels. Jane Austen, on the other hand, was fairly boring, and I probably won’t be reading any of her other novels in the foreseeable future.

Mrs. Radcliffe’s Novels