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.

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#WitchWeek2020 Day 6: MEXICAN GOTHIC and the Classic Gothic Tale

And, with this overview of what must surely become an instant classic, we sight journey’s end in this year’s Witch Week event celebrating all things Gothick. But, like all things, it ain’t over till it’s over…

Wrangling the specters today is guest blogger Kristen M, who has been blogging at WeBeReading.com for most of twelve years and is the creator of March Magics (which annually celebrates Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett). She lives in Seattle, loves baking, tolerates yard work, and hates laundry. In this post, Kristen’s review of Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s 2020 […]

#WitchWeek2020 Day 6: MEXICAN GOTHIC and the Classic Gothic Tale

#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

Wouldst thou read riddles?

Gormenghast Castle (image: Mark Robertson)

Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
(illustrated by the author).
Introduction by Anthony Burgess 1968.
Mandarin 1989 (1946)

So many insightful words have been uttered, printed, and shared about Titus Groan — and indeed about the trilogy as a whole — that it does seem pretentious to add any analysis and critique to what is simultaneously another entry in the long roll call of Gothick novels and a piece of baroque writing so individual it almost feels sui generis.

It is easy enough to attempt timelines, construct genealogies, discuss names or seek parallels with Gormenghast Castle in real-life edifices which the author may have himself experienced — in fact I have already done so — but much harder to do full justice to Peake’s vision of a crumbling structure peopled by inadequate and grotesque individuals who, nevertheless, deserve some sympathy, and to measure the beauty of the language he uses to describe it all.

I shall therefore restrict myself to giving random impressions of the work especially, as having left some time lapse after completing the work — to marinate, I tell myself — I’m finding the clear-cut outlines of the narrative blurring and fading.

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In the lion’s den

Anne Fine: The Devil Walks
Corgi 2012 (2011)

A spiral has but one path to the centre, and like a whirlpool it may seem to suck you into its depths. A maze, however, gives you options, a chance to follow a different way should you so choose.

Anne Fine’s Gothick novel, aimed at young adults but no less engaging for more senior readers, offers its protagonist Daniel similar chances to escape the spiralling path of his life, one which seems to have consigned him to the life of a recluse in a sick room, fated to a permanent limbo of existence.

Until a Doctor Marlow comes calling, and releases him into the world. But at what a cost, one that will mean pain and death for some, and pangs of misery for our Daniel: will he have been freed from one lion’s den only to find himself in another?

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Infernal visions

Ruins of gatehouse and keep of inner ward, Ludlow Castle, Shropshire

Jeannette Ng: Under the Pendulum Sun
Angry Robot Books 2017

“Two-thirds of the way through Shirley Caroline Helstone’s eyes change from brown to blue. This is not an unparalleled phenomenon in a novel. In Shirley however it is unexpected, for here Charlotte Brontë is much occupied with the looks of her characters.”
— from the abstract to J M S Tompkins, ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ Brontë Society Transactions Volume 14, 1961, Issue 1

I very much wanted to like this novel. Described as a ‘gothic fantasy with a theological twist’ Under a Pendulum Sun paraded a magnificent range of tropes and themes for our enjoyment, all centred around that staple Gothick cliché, the mysterious castle. In the 1840s Catherine Helstone travels from her native Yorkshire into the North Sea, en route to the realm that her missionary brother, Laon, has chosen to proselytise. This realm is called Arcadia, also known as the land of the Fae, what we now call fairies. But forget the little people with gauze-like wings from nursery tales, these are more altogether more mysterious, even sinister: and do they even have souls to save?

Jeanette Ng has, uniquely it seems, wedded together two unconnected themes, fairyland and theology, to produce a hybrid that’s pregnant with possibilities. She’s added into the mix the age-old British imperialist dream which in the 19th century sailed under the flags of free trade and converting heathens; she’s then buttressed her narrative with faux extracts from 19th-century texts each prefacing a chapter. So far so intriguing. But then the more we hear of Catherine, the narrator of the story, her secretive brother, a companion Ariel Davenport, castle servants Benjamin Goodfellow and the housekeeper known as the Salamander, plus a rarely glimpsed woman in black, the more mysteries the plot reveals. That’s all before we come to Mab, the Queen of the Fae, and her subjects.

I had high hopes for this unconventional fairytale set in a land with its own out-of-kilter cosmology (the sun really does swing from a Pendulum, and the moon, well, let’s just say it’s unexpected). That I wasn’t entirely won over is not because of the multiplicity of themes — which in fact was what most entertained me and kept me going — but because of other crucially important aspects of successful novel writing. Before I come to those negatives I want to apologise for the longer-than-usual digressions which now follow.

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First day

BerkeleySquareWestside
Berkeley Square, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons, cropped image)

It was a little over half a century, but it may as well have been the Dark Ages. Bare knees raw from the wind and knocking together beneath scratchy woollen shorts, the lad of ten years circled the gloomy Georgian square clockwise. His companion was confident, having walked this route many times, but the newcomer’s heart pounded in his chest as loud as a drum beaten for an execution. As he walked to the topmost corner of the square the anonymous Bath stone buildings intimidated, staring impassively but judging this poor specimen of a schoolboy as wanting, inadequate, unprepared. As indeed he was.

Surrounded by stony-faced frontages was a fenced-off garden, its bleakness needing no Keep Out notice to suggest somewhere forbidden to the likes of him. A Victorian copy of a truncated medieval high cross stood in one angle, dominated by the grey pillared tree trunks and overlooked by stripped bare boughs.

As they climbed the few steps to the entrance he gave another shiver. His blue gabardine mac gave no protection against the bitter weather, nor did his black blazer which, as he was to find out, made him as overheated in summer as it failed to safeguard him against winter cold. As the pair entered the lobby through double wooden doors his companion hissed at him to remove his cap. Out of the wind his ears stung with sudden warmth; however, when his gloves – sewn to pieces of elastic – shot up his raincoat sleeves, his fingers remained as bereft of feeling as if he’d never worn them in the first place.

A glance around confirmed what in retrospect he would recognise as a Dickensian scene: the dark panelling of the entrance; the shining shoulder-height paint on corridor walls; and, above all, the crow-like creatures who suddenly loomed into view. These were Irish Christian Brothers, neither necessarily Irish nor very Christian, and rarely brotherly. In the capacious pockets of their black habits they each carried a wicked leather strap which they named Fred or Excalibur or some such companionable name. The youngster would get to know these instruments of chastisement very soon, all too well and always with fear. For this he had left a near idyllic existence, for this he had travelled over ten thousand miles from the other side of the world.

* Another submission for creative writing classes, the theme genre writing, the genre Gothic, the prose overlarded …

A sad tale’s best

winter sleepwalker

Elizabeth Gaskell The Old Nurse’s Story [and Curious, if True]
Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1852 and 1860)

Nothing is commoner in Country Places, than for a whole Family in a Winter’s Evening, to sit round the Fire, and tell Stories of Apparitions and Ghosts. And no Question of it, but this adds to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many Times imagine they see Things, which really are nothing but their own Fancy.

— Henry Bourne in Antiquitates Vulgares (1725), quoted in
J Simpson and S Roud A Dictionary of English Folklore (OUP 2000)

Henry Bourne was a curate in Newcastle-upon-Tyne at the beginning of the 18th century who inveighed against traditions he regarded as popish or heathen. I suspect, then, that he would have given Mrs Gaskell’s short fiction ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ short shrift (or perhaps not, since “giving short shrift” is a relic Catholic phrase) for it perfectly epitomised that winter’s tale told at a Northumbrian fireside which he so hated. Luckily for his mental state he had died over a century before the two narratives included in this slim volume were published, the first in 1852, in Household Words, and the second in 1860, in The Cornhill Magazine.

The first-person narrator of ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ is Hester: an intelligent young girl in the second half of the 18th century she is selected to be nurse to Rosamond Esthwaite, daughter of a Westmoreland curate and Miss Furnivall, herself a granddaughter to a Northumbrian lord. When Rosamond is four going on five her parents both unexpectedly die within a short while of each other, and she and Hester are sent across country to the ancestral seat of Furnivall Manor House, located in Northumberland at the foot of the Cumberland Fells. The subsequent events are here recounted by the older Hester to Rosamond’s children, to whom she has also become nurse.

This is the setting for Continue reading “A sad tale’s best”

Fathering Gothick

NPG 6520; Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds by Sir Joshua Reynolds oil on canvas, circa 1756-1757 NPG 6520 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Horace Walpole by Sir Joshua Reynolds (oil on canvas, circa 1756-1757): the father of Gothick
NPG 6520 licenced for non-commercial use © National Portrait Gallery, London

We’ve come to regard the late 17th and early 18th centuries as the Age of Enlightenment, a period when science and rational thought were promoted as philosophical ideals in Europe. Come the mid-18th century there was the inevitable backlash, of sorts, and particularly in the arts. A kind of romanticism — before that term came into being in the closing years of the 18th century — was in the air, and in Britain its epitome may be seen in the strange figure of Horace Walpole.

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