Messenger with a sealed letter

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The Ghost-Seer.
Der Geisterseher: Aus den Papieren des Grafen von O** und andere Erzählungen
by Friedrich Schiller.
Translation, introduction and notes by Andrew Brown. (2003)
Alma Classics 2018 (1789)

“I am like a messenger who is carrying a sealed letter to the place of its destination. What it contains might well be matter of indifference to the messenger — he is simply out to earn payment for delivery.”

Book Two

Venice, La Serenissima, is the setting for this curious novel by the poet Schiller, but in this work its serene surface conceals a cauldron seething with plots and intrigues, secrets and lies, subterfuge and mysteries. The protagonist is a German prinz who has no prospect of advancing to secular power and so is enjoying a sojourn on the Adriatic, away from his Baltic homeland with its chill climate and cold Protestant theology.

He is accompanied by a Count, the Graf von O***,  who narrates the first half of the story, and then Baron von F***, who a year later writes letters to the now absent Count to appraise him of how matters stand with the Prince. The pair attempt to advise and support the lord as the sojourn proves to be anything but convivial and relaxed.

Beginning during the Venetian carnival the trajectory followed by the initially incognito Prince over a year or so proceeds in unexpected ways, only to be resolved abruptly when, as commenters suggest, the author grew bored with this particular narrative. It’s those unexpected twists and turns that ultimately sustain our interest in Schiller’s novel until the final denouement leaves us with quite a few unanswered questions.

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Humdrum and lacklustre

graves

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill.
Profile Books 2014 (2013)

Hugh Meredith is a junior doctor in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, lodging near Fleet Street in London and training nearby at the fictitious medical school of St Luke’s. He is drawn into a mysterious enterprise set up by fellow students Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, namely bringing a dead person back to life. The results of witnessing the experiment come literally to haunt him in this novella by Susan Hill.

The question I asked myself is, does this short story (a little over 100 pages) live up to the reputation that the author’s ghost tales have established for her?

The answer, surprisingly and disappointingly, is no.

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Death in that remark

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral: setting sun (symphony in grey and black). Amgueddfa Cymru, my photo.

Heartstones
by Ruth Rendell.
Arena Novella, Arrow Books 1988 (1987)

“There is death in that remark, the sound of death.”

Antigone’s response to Creon, in Sophocles’ play, as translated by Elvira.

Psychologically as well as intellectually this novella is as satisfying as it is perplexing. Written by one of the doyennes of crime fiction, Heartstones has intimations of unnatural deaths but without a sleuth leading the reader through to a revelatory conclusion.

To me Heartstones is a modern-day equivalent of a Classical Greek tragedy, one that’s transposed to an anonymous cathedral town (probably near the south coast of England) and played out with a limited cast, and sundry bystanders as chorus. With passing references and quotes from Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Medea there’s no doubt the author wanted us to make this particular connection, but Greek drama isn’t the only echo we are meant to hear: almost everything seems to have a symbolic significance, from the title to the house the fated family live in, and on to the stories told about the building.

At a little under eighty pages there’s a lot packed into this volume, but we ponder the genres Rendell hints at — crime fiction, Gothick romance, ghost story, horror tale, psychological thriller — particularly when the novella begins and ends with references to poison.

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The storied house

The lodge at Gliffaes Country House, Crickhowell. Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Inverted Commas 19: A sturdy sense of itself

A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows.

Though I’ve yet to read the collection with which this quote is associated — from Alice Munro‘s own introduction to her Selected Stories, 1968-1994 — I’ve always loved the concept of a storied house ever since I came across it, heaven knows when.

Yes, sometimes readers feel their way through a story as though they’re on a journey through a tangled wood or on a path through an unknown country; but I’m someone to whom the image of a narrative like a storey’d edifice appeals very strongly.

Maybe it’s because I’m fairly visual; because I’m drawn to urban and suburban environments, happy to stand outside a building and admire its architecture; because I love gardens with an arrangement of ‘rooms’ where one can pause and take in one’s surroundings.

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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: The end is nigh!

If you’re reading this, you’ve lived to tell the tale of Witch Week 2020. When you do, make sure it’s a tale with dark corners, collapsed towers, and horrifying specters. Not to mention lots and lots of shadows. Chris and Lizzie are grateful for the help of everyone who participated: e-Tinkerbell of eTinkerbell, who, in typical English-teacher […]

#WitchWeek2020: The end is nigh!

#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 5: Gothic fantasy, with puppets

Puppets! Orphans! Victorian London! Lizzie Ross’s review of Laura Amy Schlitz’s novel has everything we desire for a Gothick novel in this latest post for Witch Week 2020

Puppet shows! Fun times for all, right? Not in this chilling Newbery Honor book. In 2007, Laura Amy Schlitz had won the Newbery Award for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. This 2012 gothic fantasy by the same author takes place a few centuries later, in an England those medieval villagers could […]

#WitchWeek2020 Day 5: Gothic fantasy, with puppets

#WitchWeek2020 Day 3: The Graveyard Book

St Edmunds, Crickhowell graveyard © C A Lovegrove

Today, All Souls Day, reveals this consideration, of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated bildungsroman set in a cemetery, for this year’s Witch Week with the theme of Gothick.


2012 US paperback edition, cover by Dave McKean “It takes a graveyard to raise a child.” (back cover of The Graveyard Book, US edition) Appropriately for today, the Day of the Dead, we present you with a discussion of this year’s read-along book, a novel set in a cemetery. Four of us–Lory* from The Emerald City Book Review, Chris […]

#WitchWeek2020 Day 3: The Graveyard Book

#WitchWeek2020 Day 2: A Gothic Reading of The Betrothed

Day 2 of #WitchWeek2020 sees an excellent synopsis and analysis of the classic Italian Gothick novel ‘The Betrothed’ — don’t miss it!

Today’s guest blogger, e-Tinkerbell, lives in Italy, so it’s no surprise that she brings this classic Italian novel from the 19th century to our attention. e-Tinkerbell is a high school English teacher who loves literature, history… and shoes. She blogs at e-Tinkerbell. All translations from the Italian are hers. Buona lettura! The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi*) is […]

#WitchWeek2020 Day 2: A Gothic Reading of The Betrothed

#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

Witch Week 2020

Wotcher, would-be witches, warlocks, wizards and wonder-workers! Witch Week 2020 begins today with a line-up of what’s in store between Halloween and Bonfire Night on Lizzie Ross‘s blog (here) where all this year’s offerings are being hosted.

What exactly is Witch Week? It’s an event inaugurated by Lory Hess at The Emerald City Book Review inspired by Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Witch Week (which I reviewed here). It covers the period formerly known as Hallowmas and leads up to the day marking the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot; this would have seen Parliament and all in it, including King James I, blown to smithereens in 1605, until Guy Fawkes was revealed ready to light the fuse.

2020’s theme is Gothick, and the event is bookended by posts very much focused on that ever-popular literary genre.

So, along with ‘Gothick Dreams’ there’s an analysis of an Italian Gothick classic, a discussion of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, a piece on ghost writer M R James, plus reviews (including one of a recently acclaimed Latin American title). The event finishes on the day after Bonfire Night with news of next year’s theme, to be hosted by yours truly here on Calmgrove.

So what are you waiting for? All the details, including who’s contributing what and when, are now up on https://lizzierosswriter.com — prepare to be bespelled.

And if you can’t wait to be spooked, here’s a link to my review of Joan Aiken’s The Haunting of Lamb House

Mysterious and mesmeric

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)

Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.

And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.

The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.

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Witching hour

We’re just over a week away from All Saints or All Hallows Eve, in case it had somehow slipped your mind in our modern commercialised world.

In the pagan Celtic period it was the start of Samhain in Ireland and Scotland, and in Wales Hallowe’en is Noson Galan Gaeaf, ‘the eve of the first day of winter’. When the start of winter was christianised in the 8th century the feast of All Saints was transferred here from the Pentecost period; no doubt this was due to ancestor worship traditionally being marked on the cusp of winter — with guising and offerings of food and drink at the graveside by the descendants of the deceased to appease their spirits — and therefore an apt time to honour all the saints and other souls who had gone before.

Myself, I don’t go for the partying or the trick-or-treating or the churchgoing, but I’m happy to mark the occasion online by offering a few words about Hallowmas on this post.

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Going Gothick

A quick reminder that Witch Week begins in roughly three weeks time. This runs from Hallowe’en to Bonfire Night, an event first begun by Lory Hess on The Emerald City Book Review, and is an annual series of guest posts.

Inspired by a fantasy by Diana Wynne Jones (called, naturally, Witch Week) this year’s event features Gothick as a theme, the perfect choice for this season.

This year my co-curator Lizzie Ross is hosting (I hosted last year) and I will be pointing you to her blog LizzieRossWriter.com for the posts: here’s her advance notice of what’s to come. Offerings lined up cover a range of literary areas, including a group read of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, but there’s much, much more!


In other news, this arrived in the post this morning, a Certificate of Higher Education in Creative Writing Studies from Aberystwyth University