19 March 2009

Gothic novels

I've been in bed with flu for a couple of days, and have been reading a couple of Gothic novels.

I've read a few previously, most notably C. Maturin's Melmoth the wanderer, which I read mainly because I once lived in Melmoth, and was curious about the origin of the name (yes, I know it was named after Sir Melmoth Osborn, British Resident of Zululand after the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, but where did he get his name from?)

And then of course there are the books of H.P. Lovecraft, which are a sort of 20th-century revival or continuation of the genre. I began reading those after Irving Hexham of the religious studies department of the University of Calgary, once remarked on a discussion forum for new religious movements that there was in fact an H.P. Lovecraft cult -- that there were people who believed that the mysterious grimoire that the wrote about, the Necronomicon really existed and was locked away in a secret vault of the Miskatonic University.

And I've also read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, which is a parody of the genre, and one would really need to be familiar with the genre to fully appreciate it.

So I've just read Horace Walpole's The castle of Otranto and William Beckford's Vathek. And I was quite pleasantly surprised; they were much better than I expected.

They didn't, like Lovecraft and his inferior imitators, try to induce shudders in the reader by piling on strange adjectives like "eldrich". They also weren't nihilist like Lovecraft, but were quite moral. From reading about Gothic novels I had got the impression that they were filled with Protestant English horrors about the unnatural life of monks and nuns and the wicked things they get up to (there's plenty of that in Melmoth), but in both these novels holy men (both Roman Catholic and Muslim) are treated as deserving respect. And the common thread that runs though them both is the abuse of power by unjust rulers, who eventually fall under divine judgement.

That was something I didn't quite expect from 18th-century Enlightenment authors.

Oh well, Frankenstein is next on the list, and I'm also reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.


Crushed said...

Interesting you should mention these two.

Castle of Otranto is beautifully rich, but also kind of disconcertingly grotesque- therre is something Almost Salavador Dali about the giant helmet, etc, etc.

As for Vathek, I actually found the whole Pre-Adamite Sultans idea a fascinating concept which first got me interested in that particular theme, the Pre Adamite races.

One must remember that the whole point of Gothic novels is kind of a return to pre-rennaisance morality, hence Gothic. Possibly the remoance of the middle ages which most approaces the Gothic, is the curious Perlesvaus, of the thirteenth century. Ahead of its time in many ways, it has the same jarring unease of Castle of Otranto.

Steve Hayes said...

I've now finished Gaiman's Neverwhere, and despite it's late 20th-century origin, it seems of a piece with the other two, as far as the general theme is concerned.

I found it a bit annoying that a novel set in London should use American English -- not just spelling, but words, phrases and expressions that I don't think Londoners would use, because they are so obviously part of a different dialect.

But the ending, in particular, has features in common with Vathek

Anonymous said...

After Northanger Abbey, you should read the "seven horrid novels" mentioned in it. Rather than type them all our myself, I'll give you this link to another blog post. James Jenkins, of Valancourt Press, discusses them here

And you can order them here


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