Gothick Dreams

An 1835 illustration for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

“I waked one morning [in 1764] from a dream, of which, all I could recover, was, that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down, and began to write…”
— Horace Walpole, in a letter

At the heart of early Gothick literature — I use the spelling ‘Gothick’ to differentiate it from historical or architectural meanings of Gothic — broods The Castle.

And when I say ‘Castle’ I mean those edifices, usually ancient abbeys or mansions, with a clutch of qualities which we immediately recognise, namely antique origins, some of which may be ruinous, harbouring histories of romance, the supernatural, even horror, and — at its heart — mysteries in the form of eldritch scandals or objects, accessed via secret passages, tunnels, caves, crumbling staircases and hidden doors.

The attraction of stories that include these edifices is twofold: first, the intellectual satisfaction that comes from following a confusing trail that may or may not lead to answers; and second, the curiosity that has its roots in psychology, dreams, even nightmares, with an inkling that the skull may itself be the castle and that, within it, the brain’s convolutions hide the ultimate mystery. Let’s have a look at these two aspects.

Continue reading “Gothick Dreams”

#WitchWeek2020 Day 1: Gothick Dreams

The first post in 2020’s Witch Week event is by yours truly over on Lizzie Ross’s blog, where this year’s event will be unfolding for the next seven days.


Happy Halloween to all! My first guest blogger is my co-host, Chris, who blogs as Calmgrove on WordPress, where for eight years he’s been exploring the world of ideas through books by way of reviews and discussions. Today Chris has taken on the challenge of setting the mood, so to speak, for our week of dark […]

#WitchWeek2020 Day 1: Gothick Dreams

Dark deeds and the Devil

Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print
Alpine glacier, from a 19th century print

Philip Pullman:
Count Karlstein
Doubleday 2002 (1982)

Exactly four decades ago this year [2013] as a student teacher I took part in a college production of Weber’s Der Freischütz, when I sang in the chorus and took a minor role as Prince Ottokar. First performed in 1821 this was a landmark opera sung in German, adapting native folksongs — the famous ‘Huntsmen’s Song’ has affinities with the traditional English tune ‘Strawberry Fair’, which may even have been influenced by Weber’s tune — and featuring supernatural Gothic horror.

The Gothic horror tradition was also purloined by Mary Shelley when she first composed Frankenstein while sojourning near Geneva in 1816, though the novel wasn’t published until 1818. One of the crucial scenes takes place on a glacier near Mont Blanc — coincidentally, we were holidaying one summer in Chamonix when our son was reading Frankenstein as a set text for school, within sight of the very same Mer de Glace glacier where Viktor Frankenstein is confronted by his monster.

These personal memories came flooding back when reading this early piece of fiction by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman.

Continue reading “Dark deeds and the Devil”

“This dismal place”

A part of Wales in the time of James III (map by Pat Marriott for The Whispering Mountain)

‘Hey, you — you there, you boy!’ The driver’s voice startled Owen by its loud, harsh, resonant tones.
‘Y-yes, sir,’ he stammered. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Is this dismal place the town of Pennygaff?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Thank God for that, at least. I’ve been traversing these hideous black hills for the best part of three hours — I wish to heaven I may never have to set foot here again!’
— Chapter I, The Whispering Mountain

With these words the wickedest man in Joan Aiken’s alternate history novel The Whispering Mountain dismisses the Welsh town of Pennygaff and, by extension, this part of Wales. In this instalment of my dissection of this Wolves Chronicle I’d like to compare and contrast the author’s vision of the Principality in James III’s time with Mid Wales as it actually is in our world. Maps and images will feature in order to give the interested reader a sense of this part of the world, and may help in judging whether it is, indeed, as dismal as the Marquess of Malyn suggests.

Continue reading ““This dismal place””

Irony and Ingenuousness

Blaise Castle
Blaise Castle folly, Henbury, Bristol

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008

“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine; “what is that?”
“The finest place in England – worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly – the very same.”
“But now really – are there towers and long galleries?”
“By dozens.”

The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey. Continue reading “Irony and Ingenuousness”

Castelophiles only

Part of Cardiff Castle, its facade a mix of medieval, Georgian and Victorian Gothic Revival

Gerald Morgan Castles in Wales: A Handbook
Y Lolfa 2008

It’s often claimed that, per square mile, Wales has the largest number of castles in the world.¹ Whether it’s the Welsh bigging themselves up or one of those memes that’s just accepted, it’s certainly true that the country has over 600 examples. As Wales is over 8000 square miles — nearly 20,800 square kilometres — in area,² this means there is a castle for every 13 sq miles (35 sq km) of land. Nowadays that works out at around one castle for every 5000 head of population, whereas in the Middle Ages, when the inhabitants of Wales may have fluctuated between 150K and 300K, each castle was on average meant to overawe between 250 and 500 Welshmen and -women. That’s some comment on the fears of the mostly Norman and Plantagent overlords who built them and on the rightfully bolshie attitudes of the native peoples.

When we imagine castles it’s odds-on we picture something like Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, partly modelled on the 19th-century castle at Neuschwanstein, or perhaps one of the French chateaux of the Loire. The fact is that castles come in all shapes and sizes and with varying degrees of function. Gerald Morgan makes this point very clearly in his introduction to this Welsh castle handbook: while the simplest definition could be ‘a medieval European fortified stronghold’ (thus excluding prehistoric earthworks, Roman camps and Victorian follies and fancies, for example) it can include everything from ringworks and motte-and-bailey structures to fortified manor houses and walled palaces, as well as the great military showpieces that typify the Welsh castle in the popular mind.

Continue reading “Castelophiles only”

Magic and mayhem

castle

Diana Wynne Jones Charmed Life HarperCollinsChildren’sBooks 2007 (1977)

Orphans, one spiteful,
one open-hearted, effect
magic, then mayhem!

The first of the Chrestomanci books to be published but the third in order of chronology, Charmed Life exhibits many of the possible strengths and weaknesses of a book destined to be part of a series but perhaps conceived originally as a standalone: strengths such as freshness and vitality, weaknesses such as plot holes and inconsistencies. It is to Diana Wynne Jones’ credit that she manages to avoid many of the pitfalls while still retaining a charm that manages to enchant new readers nearly forty years later. Continue reading “Magic and mayhem”

Intimations of mortality

roch-castle-1880

Diana Wynne Jones Howl’s Moving Castle
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2009 (1986)

At first sight it might seem strange that of all Diana Wynne Jones’ books (a) this should be chosen to make a film of, and (b) perhaps because of (a) this should be one of her best known titles. Why does this story, which she notes was inspired by a chance request by a young fan for a story about a castle that moves, strike such a chord with not just younger readers but also adults? Continue reading “Intimations of mortality”

Two societies, two cultures, two lives

caldicot

Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, Continue reading “Two societies, two cultures, two lives”

Freelancing

wewelsburg
Schloss Wewelsburg

Duncan Kyle Black Camelot
Book Club Associates 1979

I tried not to let the tawdry 70s jacket illustration put me off: Duncan Kyle, on the dust cover of the hardback, hints that a lot more of this World War II fiction is true than might be expected of a thriller. But that’s just what he might say, you might assume, in order to help sell the book. It’s a cunning device, isn’t it, designed to elicit the response, “It makes you think…” And yet the writing draws you in, so that from all the verbatim conversations, seemingly genuine documents and the detailed clandestine action you could almost believe it’s all true.

Almost, but not quite. Continue reading “Freelancing”

A parfit gentil knyght?

Sir John Hawkwood by Uccello, Duomo, Florence
Sir John Hawkwood by Paolo Uccello, Duomo, Florence (Wikipedia Commons)

Terry Jones Chaucer’s Knight:
the Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary

Eyre Methuen 1982 (1980)

A most impressive fresco of a sculptured horseman in trompe-l’oeil perspective dominates the north aisle of Florence’s Duomo. Painted in 1436 by Uccello (best known perhaps for his painting of St George and the Dragon in London’s National Gallery) the Latin inscription indicates that it represents Ioannes Acutus Eques Britannicus Dux Aetatis Suae Cavtissimus et Rei Militaris Peritissimus Habitus Est. A rough translation informs us that this is “John Hawkwood, British knight, the most careful leader of his age and the most skilled in matters of war”. It is an extraordinary monument in an already extraordinary building and at first leaves us wondering why an Englishman from Essex is commemorated so prominently in a Tuscan cathedral. Continue reading “A parfit gentil knyght?”

Pushing the right buttons

Islands
Islands

Enid Blyton Five on a Treasure Island
Knight Books 1975 (1942)

Enid Blyton’s fiction remains extraordinarily popular. Despite the disdain of literary critics much of her vast output remains in print because, as publishers know, her work sells. I was brought up on the Noddy books, migrated to the Famous Five and then on to the Secret Seven. I never got onto Malory Towers or St Clare’s (girl’s stuff, of course) or anything else that wasn’t part of a series. Re-reading Five on a Treasure Island as an adult it’s clear why Blyton is criticised, made fun of and parodied: the writing is stilted, employs a limited vocabulary (anything out of the ordinary is ‘queer’) and frequently mundane. But it does appeal to young readers, mainly because it is told from their point of view – their passions, their fears, their expectation that every morning holds the promise of adventure.

You have to hand it to Blyton – she knew how to push the right buttons. Continue reading “Pushing the right buttons”

Building castles in Spain

roch-castle-1880

Joan Aiken The Teeth of the Gale
Red Fox 1997 (1988)

The resourceful teenager of Bridle the Wind has, five years later, turned into the resourceful young man of this, the final volume in the Felix Brooke trilogy, but though its speedy, almost perfunctory ending seemed to suggest the way was open for a follow-up, this was sadly not to be. A pity, as Felix is an engaging if slightly humourless character, and well matched by the prickly Juana, the object of his attentions.

As with Bridle the Wind and its predecessor Go Saddle the Sea, this volume is set in early 19th-century Spain following the Napoleonic Wars, now riven with rival political factions (as the author’s own Afterword helpfully tells us). Felix is persuaded to go on a mission to rescue the kidnapped children of a nobleman, but all is not as it initially seems even though enough clues are presented to the honest young man along the way. Continue reading “Building castles in Spain”